In this opinion piece, the Director at Bradshaw PR Belinda Hamilton specialising in crisis management and media relations for all companies big and small. Brisbane and Sydney based. Hamilton, draws on recent public relations blunders to explain why having a crisis management plan is crucial.
In the past few weeks, the news has been awash with stories that have shocked the nation – from the election turmoil in the US, to a company under fire after tragedy on an incomprehensible level. These events have forced companies to stop and reflect on how they would respond if faced with something similar – how they would manage an event that posed danger to the public, their external and internal stakeholders, and not to mention their brand (and share price).
From a public relations perspective and risk mitigation viewpoint, many industry professionals have watched, mystified, as companies struggled to communicate amidst the crisis and manage it publicly.
While there is no strategy that will ever fully reverse damage done, you can substantially mitigate its impact by being prepared and employing the following strategies, now:
1. Rehearse, record and rate
Always prepare for the worst case scenario. Sure, it sounds grim but it’s a non-negotiable. Set aside time with your team and brainstorm all major events that could potentially threaten your company. Whether it’s the leaking of confidential information, an unhappy client going to the media or a customer hurting themselves on your equipment, write down every possible crisis that could occur and then as a team decide the risk. Rate each as a high, medium or low-level of occurrence, then tackle the highest priorities first.
2. Invent an internal action plan and establish a crisis management group Before you start thinking about external communications, it’s essential that you get your house in order. This is a common mistake companies make. They speak externally on the issue before having their ducks in a row. Identify a key group of internal decision makers who will meet upon a crisis breaking. Your CEO and PR Manager (or PR agency representative) should be there, as well as a call centre or customer service senior manager, even a Board member is a good idea.
Then, write down the chain of command – who needs to tell who. Remember it’s often those internal stakeholders on the front line who will find out first. For example, a call centre operator or a media advisor in your team may get a call before others in senior management are made aware of the problem. Prepare an internal communications briefing flowchart which clearly stipulates who needs to tell who, how and when (immediately).
In these situations, it’s always best to talk in person or on the phone first wherever possible. It’s also a good idea to include tiers of communication – group your internal stakeholders (e.g. Executive team, General Manager’s etc) and then based on the crisis, anticipate how far down you want the information to flow. In our experience, it’s always best to tell the whole company so everyone is engaged and armed with the messages they need.
3. Craft key messages and media lines
Once you’ve anticipated the worst possible scenarios facing your company and how you will communicate them internally, think about what messages will be given to the external stakeholders and public. It’s helpful to have two key messages for each disaster recorded. That is, what are the main points you need to get across to the media or in any communications to your clients? Will the most important key messages be about ensuring safety and the reiteration of your policies and processes?
Once you have worked out the key positioning points, write down the reactive few lines or statement that you would deliver to the media if the crisis were to occur. Of course it will depend on the questions and the media outlet, but try to have one general media statement written and approved by the key crisis communications team.