issue audit

Addressing Skeletons in Your Closet Before They Tumble Out

Old skeletons in the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, largely because politicians, celebrities, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders are loathe to poke around for past indiscretions or embarrassing views, so they are poorly prepared to respond when the skeleton tumbles out of the closet onto social media.

Old skeletons in the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, largely because politicians, celebrities, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders are loathe to poke around for past indiscretions or embarrassing views, so they are poorly prepared to respond when the skeleton tumbles out of the closet onto social media.

The chaotic state of political affairs in Virginia is a good reminder that skeletons in the closet have a nasty habit of popping their head out of the door.

Closet skeletons are a dimension of crisis preparation that is frequently overlooked in the mistaken judgment that what happened long ago will never be uncovered. As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Virginians and the rest of America who pays attention to the news have discovered, that’s just not true. An obscure medical school yearbook picture can come back to haunt you.

An old skeleton liberated from the closet is an especially hard crisis to combat, as Northam’s fumbling reaction illustrated. It is like an ambush interview on steroids. You have to address the unexpected surfacing of the skeleton and be judged on how you handle the surprise. As with any other crisis, being surprised is a big problem in responding credibly.

To err is human, as Alexander Pope observed, and to forgive is divine. The trouble is the vast majority of people need a reason to forgive. The unprepared politician, corporate executives , celebrity or nonprofit leader is ill-equipped to ask for forgiveness. Being prepared doesn’t guarantee forgiveness, but it helps.

Rummaging around in your past life in search of old skeletons may be uncomfortable – and unsettling for family members, friends and colleagues. But discomfort and private embarrassment seem like a small price to pay in the face of public disgrace.

The rummaging can have salutary benefits by revealing unacknowledged attitudes that present teachable moments. Using Northam’s situation as an example, if he had recalled the yearbook – or, more important, his earlier flippant attitudes about blackface, he could have turned his “surprise” into an epiphany. Admitting he failed to realize how blackface offended African-Americans, Northam could have displayed a capacity to open his eyes and mind to new realities, much like Virginians have had to face up to the reality that many confederate statues were erected as imposing Jim Crow-era reminders to black Virginians to “know their place.”

People running for public office should conduct thorough personal audits to identify any problematic skeletons in their past – or present. They should start by listing the transgressions before leaping to justifications. This is not really all that much different from a candid and thorough issue audit organizations should undertake to prepare crisis communications plans. The main difference is ranking probability.

The owner of a skyscraper should consider an elevator accident in an issue audit, but probably doesn’t need to worry all that much about an elevator crashing into the basement. Political candidates and officeholders can’t discount anything, as Northam’s yearbook page attests. The emphasis for candidates and officeholders is to brainstorm how to respond if their skeleton is exposed. 

Northam again proves illustrative. After his initial equivocation, Northam has earned some respect by dedicating the remainder of his gubernatorial term, assuming he gets to serve that long, to addressing issues of racial justice. If he had thought about the possibility of this blackface skeleton tumbling out of his closet, Northam could have responded more surefootedly and powerfully. His lack of preparation also showed through over the weekend during a relatively sympathetic interview with Gayle King of CBS News when she corrected his reference to Virginia’s racial past of importing “indentured servants” by saying, “You mean slaves.”

Changing times and norms have made behavior tolerated in the past intolerable in the present. In reality, sexual abuse and racial insensitivity were never okay. Victims were ignored or even punished. What’s really changed is that the spying eyes of social media make it harder for perpetrators to laugh off their bad acts. Victims have the tools to expose and punish them.

Like it or deplore it, you would be smart to prepare for it. Closet walls aren’t what they used to be.

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

 

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.

Be Prepared Before Your Chickens Come Home to Roost

KFC was embarrassed when its UK and Irish fast food restaurants ran out of chicken and were forced to close. Good reminder to imagine what could go wrong and prepare before your chickens come home to roost

KFC was embarrassed when its UK and Irish fast food restaurants ran out of chicken and were forced to close. Good reminder to imagine what could go wrong and prepare before your chickens come home to roost

If you run short of chicken at a home barbecue, it can be embarrassing. But it is far more than embarrassing if the world’s largest fried chicken fast food restaurant runs out of chicken.

KFC found out how embarrassing when it closed more than 800 restaurants in the United Kingdom and Ireland because of a chicken shortage resulting from a clumsy switch in UK distributors. In a full-page advertisement, the fast food giant deadpanned, “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.” The company with a Kentucky colonel as its mascot offered an apology, reported progress on getting its chicken supply in order and mocked itself by re-ordering its famous three-letter name to a cheeky “FCK.”

One wag mocked the chicken chain by noting, “Now we know why the chicken crossed the road. KFC was closed.”

As disasters go, a few days in Britain without KFC is not a huge loss, except perhaps for the employees who presumably lost wages. But the chicken-free episode serves as a reminder that it doesn’t take a parking lot shooting, food spoilage or a flash mob to put your operation in the news in a bad light. Sloppy logistics can do the job, too.

In truth, you can be under a dark cloud without ever doing anything wrong. How you respond determines whether your reputation will be darkened.

Food supply and food security issues aren’t strangers to restaurant operators. They are calamities that occur often enough so they can be anticipated. That includes having some prepared responses in the freezer, both in terms of operations and communications. With advance planning, you can do better than say “FCK.” For example, you might have a video on ice that shows where you source your food supply and how you check to make sure no adulterated food enters through your restaurant receiving door.

We call this crisis preparation, but you could call it thinking ahead. Imagine what could go wrong that disrupts your daily routine – or your business future. Some of the potential disruptions can be avoided through proactive steps, such as installing stronger food inspection procedures and requiring a higher degree of food preparation hygiene. Other disruptions may be unavoidable and require contingency planning, which includes how to manage crisis news coverage or a social media frenzy.

In the digital age, you can have a crisis on your hands without a TV station film crew at your door. A customer with a smartphone can turn your place of business into a live streaming broadcasting studio. Nobody has to wait until the 5 pm newscast or tomorrow morning’s newspaper. They can see what’s happening on their laptops and mobile devices almost immediately. That’s what happened when KFC store operators posted signs in their windows explaining they were closed because they ran out of chicken.

Most crises are not fatal. KFC will round up enough chickens to reopen its UK and Irish restaurants and straighten out its distribution glitch. But reputations can suffer if a crisis is mishandled. KFC blended an explanation with humor and probably skated by any long-term damage, except for some ribbing from competitors and an occasional reference in chicken-crossing-the-road jokes.

Chances are pretty good no one higher-up the pecking order at KFC thought the chain would run out of chicken. That’s why an issue audit is so important because it gets more than the roosters around a table to imagine what could go wrong.

As Murphy’s law notes, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” The law draws its name from Captain Edward A. Murphy, an engineer on an Air Force research project to test the amount of deceleration a person could endure in a crash. Adherence to Murphy’s Law led to a relentless search for mistakes and resulted in a spotless project safety record.

Human aptitude has a cousin – human ineptitude. It’s just the way we are. The best we to overcome ineptitude is to show an aptitude for preparing for the worst. You never know when your chickens will come home to roost.

 

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.

Manage Issues from the Front, Not Rear

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on  Blue Bloods , but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

Detective Danny Reagan chases down bad guys on Blue Bloods, but you may not be able to catch up to a bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

The best position in which to manage an issue is from the front, not the rear. If you are chasing an issue, chances are you won’t catch up before you go over the cliff.

This is a painful lesson that some organizations learn the hard way. For some, it takes more than one mistake to learn that it is smart to anticipate problems and take steps before problems become crises.

Easier said than done, to be sure. But it can be done.

Chipotle is a poster child for the point. The company ballyhooed fresh food from local sources. You don’t have to be rocket scientist to anticipate potential problems in food safety that could – and apparently did – lead to serious health outbreaks at more than one of the burrito chain’s outlets.

Jack in the Box learned its lesson from a 1993 E. coli outbreak that killed four children, infected 732 people and left 178 victims permanently injured with kidney and brain damage. The fast food chain, which owns the Qdoba Mexican Eats franchise that is a Chipotle competitor, installed food safety measures up and down its supply chain. Jack in the Box hasn’t experienced a major problem with food safety since then.

Qdoba promises “food for people who love food,” which isn’t as enticing as food made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Company execs decided a weaker tagline was better than sicker customers.

Issue management is not reserved just for customer-facing problems. It applies equally to issues with neighbors, constituents, stakeholders and employees.

The Southeast Portland glassmakers that used cadmium and arsenic in their processes could easily have anticipated air contamination, regardless of whether they were operating within the boundaries of their air permits. While the businesses showed good judgment by suspending the use of those chemicals once data emerged that there was a problem, they would have displayed greater judgment by insisting on regular independent testing so they could detect the problem earlier.

Some problems are obvious; some are not. That’s why we advise organizations to undertake issue audits. An issue audit is a no-holds-barred process to identify and vet all kinds of potential problems – legal, financial, technical, operational, environmental and competitive. The list of problems then should undergo an evaluation to determine the most probable risks and the ones with the most serious potential consequences.

That is invaluable, if sometimes inconvenient information.

The matrix of problems should be assessed by a risk/benefit test. The risk with the highest likelihood of serious consequence is where you start. If you determine, the cost to remediate the problem is far cheaper than the outfall of a crisis involving the problem, then it is a no-brainer decision to fix it. That’s a great way to get ahead of a problem.

Some problems may be too expensive or technically challenging to fix. You have to employ different tactics to stay ahead of their curve toward crisis. That might involve an open house or creation of an advisory committee. It could require meeting with affected people one-on-one. Such tactics take time, but it could be time better spent than facing a battery of TV cameras and angry questions.

In an era when everyone with a smartphone is the equivalent of an investigative reporter and social media moves at light speed, getting in front of an issue is more important than ever. Detective Danny Reagan may catch the bad guy on every episode of Blue Bloods, but don’t count on the same script when you are chasing a really bad problem that you should have anticipated and might have avoided.

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.