Success in crisis communication is a little like defining time. Someone, can’t remember who, said time was something everyone knows but is almost impossible to define. Yet, it is critical to define success for both a response and your preparation for it.
Start with the End in Mind
Steven Covey’s advice is more than applicable. Add to that, think about what failure looks like. Failure means loss of trust, loss of respect, loss of credibility and loss of value. For a business it may mean sharp decline in sales, in share value, in employee retention. For public agencies, it means erosion in public confidence and therefore, threats to the leaders’ reputations including those of the elected officials serving as public overseers. So, the bare minimum of success is avoiding failure–or, in the case of some events, unnecessary failure.
Necessary Failure vs. Unnecessary Failure
What I mean by that is that some events are beyond the best communication efforts to protect against loss of trust and respect. The outrage caused by dumping oil for months into an ocean without the ability to stop is certain even if accompanied by the best of all communication responses. Having an entire city wiped out by dike breaks in a massive storm is going to be devastating to trust in everyone involved, even if communications are perfect. Necessary failure, or loss of trust, is when the events and response, even when fully, completely, honestly and quickly told, result in inevitable loss of trust, respect and confidence. Unnecessary failure is when the event and the response itself do not warrant that loss, but inadequate communication increases the outrage, frustration and confidence in those responding. Windstorms causing massive power outages are good examples when the primary complaints against Southern California Edison and Long Island Power were not about the outages themselves or even the slow restoration times, but the very inadequate communication with those affected. That is an unnecessary response failure.
Success then can be defined as maintaining or even enhancing the organization’s trust, respect and confidence based on both the actions taken by those leading the response and meeting the very high expectations for communication about those actions.
Focusing on the Right Few
Sure, you can take a big scientific survey after the event is over and ask, hey, how’d we do in meeting your expectations for information? And meeting your expectations for responding appropriately? There would be considerable value in that, but the time and expense involved may not be necessary. Because the opinions of a relatively small number of individuals are what really matter. The key question before an event is: who are the people whose opinion about you (your organization) matter most for your future? To the surprise of most, these people are pretty small in number. They may be those sitting on the appropriations committee, key customers, major donors, influential community leaders, industry gurus, trade reporters, stock analysts, irreplaceable employees–if you think about it you can identify them. It is their opinion that really matters. And they are very reachable.
That means in determining perception about the response and the communication, it’s pretty easy to pick up the phone, shoot off some emails, put a quick survey together or just listen to them. Did you meet their expectations for right action and effective communication? If they got the straight story from you–on their terms, when they wanted it and needed it–no amount of bad press or bad buzz is going to tip them over. They may be concerned about how well you are dealing with the bad press, but they will be looking at it from your perspective, not as an outsider looking in.
How to measure success?
1. Define success as meeting or exceeding the expectations of the Right Few for right action and effective communication.
2. Know those expectations in advance.
3. Let those expectations guide every aspect of your planning.
4. After an event, ask them: did we meet or exceed your expectations?
This is not expensive. It is not difficult. Yet, does anyone do it?