I have been working on a project lately for a financial services client; a crisis communications plan designed to help them deal with a variety of public problems. We developed scenarios to cover financial meltdown, executive malfeasance, data loss or theft, robbery, fire, flood, pestilence, and a plague of locusts. The client was pleased – “Very thorough” was the response – but in the process of developing the crisis plan I recalled a number of points I had forgotten about crisis management.
The first revelation was that in order for there to be a crisis, you have to have a victim. This seems obvious, but I have known a number of chief executives who look at an internal product failure or a bad fiscal quarter and decide it’s a crisis that needs addressing. Unless the public, or employees, or stockholders are going to be affected (and usually in a dramatic way), there is no crisis.
I also discovered that NOT having a crisis communications plan in place can be expensive. You can’t just think in terms of losses in revenue, reputation, or brand equity. The premiums for E&O insurance are higher if you don’t have a crisis plan waiting in the wings. After all, statistics show that every organization will encounter a public crisis sometime in the next five years.
It’s also crucial that you not only identify corporate spokespersons in advance, you need to train them! CEOs think that talking to the press is the same as schmoozing a venture capitalist or addressing the board of directors. They are wrong! Crisis communications requires a level of understand and finesse that is unlike any other type of PR. If you have doubts, go to YouTube and look up any CEO dealing with a company crisis. If they have prepared, it shows.
What’s wrong with this picture? Would you trust this man with your crisis message?
The real trick in crisis communications is being responsible and admitting there is a problem without pointing fingers or assigning culpability. This is a fine line that can be very hard to walk. If you speak frankly and address concerns quickly about what you know, and stay within your area of responsibility, you can avoid laying blame or making statements that you will have to recant later.
Above all, crisis communications calls for authenticity It’s not just about saving the company’s reputation or shoring up stock price. It’s about being a stand-up corporate citizen that cares about customers, employees, or the planet – whoever has been affected by the company’s error.
So if you haven’t revisited your crisis strategy lately, it’s time. Make sure you have assigned your crisis team, refreshed your contact list, and trained your spokespersons. There’s nothing worse than getting caught unprepared. And when you are caught unwares, repairing the damage to your reputation and your brand, and rebuilding your sales could take more time than you can afford to invest.