I was asked by a local business publication to do a column on crisis management. Since the audience is quite broad from mom and pop operations to some pretty sizeable industrial and healthcare organizations, the assignment helped me think through the basics.
So here is my take on the most important steps in preparing for a crisis regardless of the size and type of organization.
Five Simple Steps to Prepare for a Crisis
By Gerald Baron, Agincourt Strategies
Even though nearly every day we see a new business crisis happening, most organizations have not prepared to face a major crisis. That’s especially true of online or social media crises, even though that is the fastest growing type of crisis most face.
One reason to take a head-in-the-sand approach, is that many tend to think that crisis preparation is difficult, expensive or even impossible. But, there are a few basic actions any organization leader can take that will go far in eliminating crises from happening in the first place, and help them deal with them more effectively if they do happen.
1. Imagine your worst case scenarios.
Crisis preparation begins with a thorough examination of the kinds of events that can do you in. Might be data loss, maybe a major flood or earthquake, sudden loss of senior leaders, a bad review that goes viral, a product recall, toxic release or illegal immigration problem that hits the news. Prioritize them using a Risk Matrix, evaluating which are the most and least likely and highest and lowest impact. But, don’t fail in imagination. We’ve seen mega-disasters like the BP spill and the Fukushima tsunami in part because planners just didn’t think such worst case events were possible.
2. Take preventive measures.
If you know that an ammonia release could be devastating, you will probably double check your precautions. If you feel vulnerable about customer service, the scenarios may lead you to focus on significant improvements. The devastation of a product recall may be prevented by doubling down on quality control. And so on. The great thing about starting with scenarios and the Risk Matrix is that you know where to start in preventing a crisis. Estimates are that 75% of all business crises are smouldering–there was smoke well before the fire. Your entire organization needs to be prepared to smell the smoke and report it.
3. Character and actions matter most.
A study out of Oxford clearly demonstrated that the impact on share price on a company during and after a crisis was directly related to the perception of the public about the character of the leaders. Actions matter, and the actions that matter most are the ones that demonstrate the leaders care more about how the event is hurting others than how it is hurting them. That’s why Johnson and Johnson’s response to the contaminated Excedrin is still the gold standard of crisis response: they acted as if it was their fault and did a nationwide recall at their expense even though they were the victim of the criminal as well. And its why former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s comments about “wanting my life back” were so negatively received. Actions must be about helping and protecting others. Crisis communication should be mostly about effectively telling the caring actions that the leaders are taking.
4. Know who you need to talk to and how you will reach them.
Far too many think that crisis communication is about dealing with the media. The media are important, however, they are not nearly as important as your key stakeholders. These are the people whose opinion about you matters most for your future. Large customers, major donors, key employees, labor leaders, elected officials, regulators, community leaders–your future may be in their hands. The media are important only because of how they can affect key stakeholder opinion about you. But, if you connect with those important people and tell them straight up, honestly, openly what is going on and what you are doing, you will earn their trust even if the media doesn’t get the story right. Media are in the business of attracting an audience–these days at almost any cost. Do you really want to trust your future to them with that agenda?
More than knowing who you must communicate with, you must know how you will interact with them. Phone? Email? Website? Social Media? Snail mail? Meetings? All these can be critically important. It is their preference of channels to use that is critical–not yours. If you don’t know how they expect to hear from you in a major crisis, now is a good time to find that out.
5. Prepare key messages in advance.
Any casual look at business crises today will show that the story of many failings is “too little, too late.” Often companies do the right thing, but too late. In today’s instant news world, you have to be able to engage and communicate almost immediately. And the only way to do that is by preparing in advance. When you think through those scenarios, also think through what questions will be asked of you and what key messages need to be communicated. Involving key decision makers including legal advisers in preparing key messages in advance will mean you can move much quicker, with assurance and authority. And that feels real good when it is hitting the fan.
Gerald Baron, former publisher of Business Pulse, is a crisis communication consultant who has worked with many Fortune 100 comnpanies and government agencies from the federal to the municipal level. He writes the Crisis Comm blog for Emergency Management and the crisisblogger.com blog. He owned Baron&Company, a Bellingham marketing and PR agency for over 30 years and founded PIER System, the world’s leading supplier of crisis communication technology.