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The Time You Save Is Your Best Friend in a Crisis

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

In a crisis, you lose control of events. You are forced to respond quickly. But you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond well in advance of an actual crisis. Time isn’t your side, but you can make saved time your most valuable ally by preparing for when a crisis strikes.

Many crisis communications plans are larded with placeholder statements, which if used in an actual crisis would sound like platitudes or put-offs. Too few crisis plans include the elements of most value in a crisis – the elements that preserve time.

The essence of any crisis is loss of control. The fire is burning. Social media is exploding. The phone won’t stop ringing. Time is not on your side.

The best anyone can do is respond quickly. However, you can only respond quickly if you have prepared to respond quickly, if you have baked ways to preserve time into your crisis communications plan.

Here are some tips on how to preserve time for the crisis in your future:

Have a Crisis Communications Plan
You can’t bake anything into your crisis communications plan if you don’t have one. It’s surprising how many organizations lack a crisis communications plan of any kind, let alone a competent one. In some cases, the task has been sloughed off or postponed until “later when we have more time.” In reality, the time before a crisis is the most precious and plentiful asset you have to deal with an eventual and probably inevitable crisis.

Anticipate Your Crisis Scenarios
A nonprofit doesn’t have to worry about an exploding railcar and a railroad doesn’t have to worry about child neglect. That’s why crisis plans need to be anchored to crisis scenarios that an organization might realistically experience. The best way to anticipate relevant crisis scenarios is to identify them through a comprehensive, candid issues audit. Brainstorming about all the bad things that could happen may not seem like a great way to spend part of a day, but it can be a very productive use of your time. Acknowledging your vulnerabilities is the first step toward preserving your time in dealing with them.

Prioritize Your Vulnerabilities
After you identify your potential crisis scenarios, you should rank them by probability and impact. That enables you to focus on the most likely crisis scenarios with the highest impact. It avoids wasting time expending energy for unlikely and low-impact scenarios.

Mitigate Your Vulnerabilities
A byproduct of identifying crisis scenarios and sorting them by priority is flagging actions that can mitigate a potential crisis. Making a high-consequence, high-impact vulnerability less likely through proactive action is the greatest time saver of all.

Know Your Go-To Resources
When a particular crisis hits, it helps to know where to look for the answers you need. The go-to resources for a financial crisis will be vastly different than for an environmental spill. Who do you turn to internally? Are there external resources that can be tapped? Is there data that is relevant and useful? Knowing who to call and how to reach them can save valuable time and prevent crippling confusion during the first hours of a crisis.

Stock Up on Crisis Tools
Just as you prepare for a natural disaster by stowing away basic necessities, do the same for your crisis moment. Video or infographic explanations of safety and security procedures can be brand-savers if they are ready to go when a crisis occurs. They can be stored on a ghost website that can be activated in a crisis moment. A critical part of the crisis planning process is anticipating what tools you may need in a specific crisis, then developing them so they can be accessed in a flash. Something as simple a B-roll video can be invaluable by giving eager television reporters with a deadline something to use on air in place of what they can salvage off the Internet or from someone’s smartphone. 

Designate a Crisis Team Leader
Name somebody as your crisis team leader, so you don’t have to fumble around when a crisis occurs assigning someone the task. A crisis team leader can become the internal advocate for preparing and updating a crisis plan that is relevant and realistic. The crisis team leader’s job description should include learning about crisis response and applying that knowledge to the vulnerabilities and potential crisis scenarios of their organization. They should be ready to step into action when a crisis strikes, saving time through their advance preparation. 

Maintain Current Contact List

Outdated contact information is frequent time-wasting toe stub in a crisis. Phone numbers and email addresses change, so you need to update your contact list frequently. The crisis team leader should make sure the contact list is complete, including external numbers such as the local hospital emergency department, emergency response personnel and key contractors.

Conduct Crisis Response Drills
There is no better way to test your crisis plan than to conduct a drill. A dry run will reveal weaknesses and overlooked details in your plan, which can be fixed and save time in an actual crisis. Drills should include, when possible, emergency responders that would be called into an action during a real crisis. In cases involving hazardous substances, you want emergency response personnel to know what they are dealing with – and how to deal with it safely. Fresh eyes can point out problems, such as a shutoff switch located inside instead of outside of a room where hazardous materials are processed. Safety-proofing operations can save time by minimizing potentially catastrophic effects of a crisis.

Make Your War Room War-Ready
Not all crises require a war room, but a large crisis does. This is the place where actions are coordinated – from addressing the cause of the crisis to fielding calls from affected parties and the news media. The war room should be big enough for the designated crisis team to function there, have Internet access and one or more landlines to handle calls that come through the organization’s phone system. The rise of smartphones and laptops make war room preparation a lot easier, but not entirely foolproof. Think about what you would need and ensure it is available in the war room. Update your planning frequently. For example, Facetime and Skype offer opportunities to give live interviews or feeds without leaving your own desk.

Create Your Own Alert System
Speedy response demands real-time channels of communications. Twitter remains the most reliable way to keep eager and attentive audiences informed. However, you can’t just turn on Twitter. You have to cultivate a following, especially among news reporters and editors so they receive your tweet updates. It is easier to direct new listeners to your Twitter feed if it is established. If you have built a Twitter following, you will understand how the platform works.

Utilizing a channel such as Twitter can save time by avoiding having to make one-on-one follow-up contacts or organizing press briefings. The direct message feature of Twitter also allows personalized contact.

Train You Designated Spokespersons
Whether it’s the crisis team leader or someone else in an organization, including the CEO, make sure they have undergone media training. Effective media training includes learning how to craft and deliver a key message and performing in a simulated interview with reporters. The best media training is customized to an organization’s circumstances and crisis scenarios. Even staff members – and especially the CEO – who may have experience dealing with the media should undergo media training to hone their skills and recognize the tension that can exist in interviews involving a crisis. Conducting media training before a crisis hits is time well preserved.

There is a lot of work to do to make sure you are ready for a crisis. None of the work involves dreaming up vanilla-flavored placeholder statements. Use your time wisely to prepare wisely. The time it takes will be the invaluable time you save when a crisis occurs.

[CFM Strategic Communications is one of the leading crisis counselors in the Pacific Northwest with experience in assisting clients prepare crisis plans, test their effectiveness, make spokespersons media-ready and counsel on internal and external responses during a crisis. Contact us to see how we can help you.]

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Managing an Issue Requires Mastering It First

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Managing an issue effectively requires mastering it thoroughly – from what could go wrong, how to get credible information on the run and who can deliver a message that conveys confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Mastering an issue is the first step toward managing the issue. If you don’t understand an issue forwards and backwards, you will have a hard time marching forward or avoiding an attack from the rear.

When issues explode, the first instinct is to jump in to douse the fire. Too often, how you douse the fire can make the conflagration worse, not better, with deadly results. Knowing how to address a chemical exposure can mean the difference between harming or detoxifying a firefighter.

The confusion surrounding a crisis allows little time for homework, which is why preparing in advance for an issue meltdown is so important. That’s the only way to have the time it takes to master an issue.

To master an issue requires understanding what could go wrong. If you operate a restaurant, food security is critical. Where is the food you serve to customers sourced? Who inspects your food supplies, especially if you are buying fresh food from local sources? What are your food security protocols when supplies are delivered, refrigerated and checked for freshness?

If you think that is too much, think for a moment about Chipotle’s continuing brand challenge because it couldn’t get a handle on what was causing its customers to get sick.

More Valuable CFM Resources

More Valuable CFM Resources

Issue mastery involves documenting what you know and do. Sticking with the restaurant example, it would be smart to create a video showing the proper procedures for accepting food deliveries, storing food and handling its preparation to serve to customers. The video could be used for employee training or as a checklist to follow if a food contamination incident occurs. The video could be B-roll to share with the media tracking a food contamination story or content that can be quickly posted to a website.

In the process of mastering an issue, organizations can discover holes in the preparation or flaws in their facilities. A manufacturer may learn that emergency responders aren’t versed or trained on how to combat an environmental spill in their plant. Playing out a crisis scenario may reveal something basic like a circuit breaker is located inside a building where chemical processing occurs that could be interrupted by a power outage. Far-fetched? Not really. Both of those shortcomings were uncovered after an incident in a Portland-area manufacturing facility.

Mastery of an issue goes beyond technical knowledge. It means knowing who you can contact in a crisis to get information, an analysis of the facts and recommendations on how to address a specific issue. Advance planning is good, but never perfect. It is hard to know precisely what underground tank will leak, what company official will be outed as an embezzler or what employee will do something disgusting on a social media post. Go-to resources might include a hydrologist, a forensic accountant and a crisis communications expert.

Like most activity, mastery requires practice. Baseball hitters have batting practice. Issue managers should have crisis training exercises. A crisis plan can be just pages full of words. They need to become a process that can be quickly launched, smoothly undertaken and easily adapted to circumstances on the ground. A great example is the crisis team in a Seattle company that thought it had all its bases covered, but when it underwent an exercise, company officials sadly overlooked little details – like a crisis situation room equipped with outdated computers and bad Wi-Fi connectivity.

Issue mastery doesn’t include writing vacuous statements in advance. It should include clear responsibilities for who will be the fact-checker, who can write meaningful statements for press releases or Twitter posts and who can get statements cleared through the command hierarchy of an organization. Saying nothing isn’t useful. Saying something pertinent is useful when it is said in a timely manner.

Because the world doesn’t stand still, issue mastery demands continuous learning. New challenges arise that must be anticipated. New facts are established that must be considered. New players enter the field – from competitors to regulators – that must be taken into account.

Mastery of an issue isn’t evident unless the crisis spokesperson is capable to reflect it. Different kinds of crisis can require different types of spokespersons. Regardless how many spokespersons you have, they need to undergo thorough communications training. They need to learn how to project issue mastery through their words and body language.

One final dimension of issue mastery is comprehending who will care the most about an issue. Injecting an audience-centric perspective into issue mastery will help ensure you master the facts and externalities that matter to people impacted most directly by the issue. If your database is hacked, the customers or clients on that database will want to know what was compromised and what they can do about it. If a truck crashes spilling toxic chemicals, nearby residents, schools and businesses will care about how big the spill is, how far it spread and the dangers it poses.

Mastering an issue takes time. Waiting for a crisis to do your homework is usually too late. Seize the one advantage you have – the luxury of time to understand an issue thoroughly, identify potential resources to call in a crisis and train one or more spokespersons on how to deliver an effective message that conveys confidence you know what you are doing.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Customize Your Crisis Plan with Risk Scenarios

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

Because organizations face very different kinds of vulnerabilities, you need scenario-based crisis plans centering on real risks with a high potential to occur and large consequences when they do occur.

A fast food restaurant, an industrial helicopter company and a nonprofit child welfare agency don’t share the same vulnerabilities, so why should they have the same crisis plan? They need unique crisis plans built around risk scenarios each might actually face.

A fast food restaurant should prepare for a food safety crisis response, not one involving a helicopter crash or child abuse. That sounds obvious, but in practice many organizations settle for a crisis plan based on a template they plucked up somewhere online. Scenario-based crisis plans may or may not look like the crisis plan templates you can find online. This is a case where function is more important than form.

There are common elements in crisis plans, such as up-to-date phone lists, a designated crisis team leader and protocols on how to field press calls. While not unimportant, those are not the defining characteristics of a savvy, effective crisis response.

Here are some of critical characteristics of scenario-based crisis plans that you won’t get from a template:

Conduct an Issue Audit

A scenario-based crisis plan begins with an issue audit where key staff members and stakeholders meet to identify the spectrum of vulnerabilities facing their organization. Candor is critical so you don’t leave off a sensitive issue everyone would prefer  to ignore. The issue audit should cover the waterfront of potential operational, financial, legal, competitive and reputational risks.

Assess Probability and Potential Consequence of Risks

After a range of risks have been identified, they need to be assessed to determine how likely each is to occur and, if it does occur, how seriously it could hurt the organization. This is what risk managers and insurers do, but many organizations don’t have anyone to manage risk or the wherewithal to insure against risk. The key deliverable from a risk assessment is to create a hierarchy of risks in which those with the highest likelihood to occur and the largest potential impact are put on top.

Measure Your Perception Gap

Conducting perception gap research is essential to understand reputational risks. You may think your reputation is spiffy, but stakeholders or customers may disagree. Knowing there is a perception gap and why that gap exists is valuable information that can inform crisis scenario planning and an actual crisis response. The cost of perception gap analysis can be spread because its findings are also worthwhile for organizational branding, management decision-making and employee training and recruitment.

Determine What Risks You Can Control

An often overlooked aspect of crisis preparation is crisis avoidance. Look at your list of potential risks and assess which ones have factors that you can control. Are there ways you can improve safety in your operation? Can you install more reliable safeguards for your processes? Is there a way to diversify your revenue stream? How can you differentiate yourself from competitors in a way that will build goodwill with customers? The answers to questions like these about your list of vulnerabilities should generate a management action plan that at once increases organizational viability and lessens or eliminates a potential crippling organizational vulnerability.

Write a Crisis Plan Based on Highest Risk Scenarios

Craft crisis scenarios that are likely to occur, could wreak the most damage and over which you have little control. You should add scenarios that you could eliminate or mediate, but haven’t. Each crisis scenario should anticipate how and by whom it might be triggered, which can a valuable guide on where to look for the cause of a crisis and what steps to take to address it.

Get Specific in Crisis-Scenario Responses

Because you have identified high-likelihood, high-impact risks, it makes sense to be as specific as possible on how to respond. Where will you go to get the facts and how will you vet them? Who needs to be alerted about the crisis? What resources will you call on to assist with your crisis response? How will you organize internally to address the crisis? Who will be your spokesperson? What process will you use to ensure timely, accurate and trust-building crisis updates? Is there useful background information you can prepare in advance to release to the public when a Crisis scenario occurs?

Include Crisis Plan Checklist

Don’t forget to add basics such as internal and external contact information, designating a crisis team leader and media training for spokespersons and key fact-finders. Fact-finders may not be the persons you want in front of reporters and TV cameras, but they will understand their role better if they have experienced the pressure of responding on deadline to harsh questioning.

Evaluate Whether Your Crisis Plan Aligns with Your Values

A crisis will only become an opportunity if an organization’s response aligns faithfully to its professed values. The most memorable crisis responses are ones that closely correspond to an organization’s values. Are the actions outlined in step with those values? Will you do everything expected based on your values? Can you point to specific responses that demonstrate your commitment to your values? 

Run a Crisis Plan Fire Drill

A crisis plan isn’t an abstract manual; it is a realistic how-to-guide. Your organization won’t be fully prepared until you test your crisis plan, find out our kinks exist and iron them out. The best way to do that is to conduct an organizational fire drill involving a high-risk, high-impact scenario.

Keep the Crisis Plan Fresh

Crisis plans don’t have unlimited shelf life. Build in a timeline to review the plan, asking questions about newly emerging crisis scenarios and whether your media-training spokespersons are still available. Make sure to update contact lists regularly. Think continuously about ways to prepare background information in advance that can be stored on a ghost website for when you need it. Visual explanations and videos take time to produce, so don’t wait until a crisis strikes to get into the director’s chair.

Follow these steps and you will be as ready as possible for a crisis that could affect your organization. A disciplined crisis planning process is beneficial even if a crisis scenario occurs out of the blue. Your organization will have developed the mentality and muscle tone to respond as a unit with speed, accuracy and commitment.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Crisis Plans and Critical Details

Failure to check out the details can waylay the best laid crisis preparedness plans.

A great crisis preparedness plan can be thwarted with a wrong phone number, outdated emergency responder list or a trained spokesperson who has been transferred to Poughkeepsie.

A great crisis preparedness plan can be thwarted with a wrong phone number, outdated emergency responder list or a trained spokesperson who has been transferred to Poughkeepsie.

One of the most common practical shortcomings of crisis plans is outdated phone and email lists. Other common problems:

  • Chemical inventories are incomplete or not up to date.
  • The last incident training exercise with local emergency responders was years ago.
  • The war room you identified lacks an Internet connection.
  • The "ghost website" mentioned in your plan was never populated with background materials, B-roll video or other useful information.
  • The spokespersons you gave media training took new jobs and you didn't designate or train replacements. 

These oversights can be catastrophic if a crisis occurs. An employee can face serious injury unless you can tell firefighters on the spot how to handle his exposure. You can't stay on top of real-time information flows without reliable communication channels. The person standing in front of a battery of microphones with zero experience can botch an answer and tarnish an organization's hard-earned reputation.

Many organizations satisfy themselves with crisis plans that are generic. They grab a template online, fill in the blanks, print it on quality paper at Kinko's, show it off at a staff meeting and place it on the shelf. Ironically, it can do less harm there.

Crisis plans worth their weight are based on scenarios that are likely or at least imaginable for a particular business, nonprofit or public agency. The risks faced by a fast food restaurant are far different than those faced by a bank, plastics manufacturer or commercial property developer.

When crisis plans are molded around scenarios, the big picture and small detail are more obvious. Scenarios create a tangible context in which a crisis might occur, so you can think through how you will gather needed facts, stabilize or maintain operations during a crisis and communicate with affected communities and the news media.

If you crafted a crisis plan five years ago and haven't touched it since, the plan probably omits any mention of Twitter or Instagram as effective channels to provide timely updates to a wide range of publics. The plan is likely weak on dealing with crises sparked or fanned by posts on social media. And, as Sony Pictures and Target can attest, most crisis plans fail to contemplate computer hacking and its consequences.

Details in a crisis plan are critical. They need to be checked at regular, frequent intervals. Scenarios should be evaluated to see if they are still risks or whether new, scarier risks have emerged that demand attention.

But remember, your plan can be terrific, but you still can stumble if the phone number of the person you need to consult is wrong.