Anyone who has ever been in a crisis knows just how fast things can spin out of control. Once you’re in a crisis, planning is a luxury you can’t afford. Taking proactive steps to safeguard your reputation becomes harder, as you scramble to react to each new revelation or accusation.
As a result, many organizations reflexively ‘shut down’ taking a ‘head in the sand’ approach with the public. Others rapidly shift from one strategy to the next, shopping for something, anything that will resonate with the public.
In fact, so many high-profile gaffes have occurred, the public might be forgiven for wondering just who if anyone is in charge of the nation’s leading institutions and corporations.
From the failure of the former Director of FEMA to acknowledge the suffering evident to anyone with a television screen in flood ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi, to the unintelligible or unbelievable statements of baseball legends called before Congressional committees investigating the use of steroids; the forehead slapping moments (‘What were they thinking?’) continue to preoccupy us.
So what can executives learn from such high-profile blunders?
First and foremost, its that crises don't HAVE to leave reputations in ruin. It’s not the crisis as much as the way you react to it that deeply impacts your public reputation.
That means the time to plan your crisis response is before your crisis occurs.
But how do you plan for the unexpected?
There are a few key steps every organization can take to safeguard your hard-earned reputation in a crisis
CREATE A CRISIS TEAM
This group of first responders has to be large enough to get the job done, but not so large as to be unwieldy. Include only essential decision makers.
ASSIGN CLEAR TASKS AND LINES OF COMMAND
Make sure everyone knows the job they’ve been assigned during a crisis, who they’ll report directly to, and how often. Key positions include handling internal and external communications with key stakeholders. Detailed record keeping by each member of the team is essential. Repeatedly ensure that contact information for each member of the team is updated and that modes exist for two-way communication.
APPOINT A SPOKESPERSON
Limit the number of people speaking during a crisis, particularly to outside parties. Make sure the spokesperson is a member of the crisis team and is kept well-informed on an on-going basis.
ESTABLISH SYSTEMS OF COMMUNICATION TO THE PUBLIC AND TO THE MEDIA
Temporary websites, hotlines and direct media outreach are proven methods of keeping the media and the public informed during a crisis. Make sure you have a media kit at the ready containing information about your company or organization, as well as a list of approved contacts. Make sure anyone answering phones understands to forward all inquiries to the appropriate parties.
DECIDE ON A RESPONSE
Agree on and establish messages early and review them often as events unfold. Seek to tell what you know, when you know it. You simply cannot wait until everything is known to issue your response. It's essential that people and safety issues are addressed first in every communication. Know that every stakeholder will want questions answered about what happened, why it happened, and what will happen next.
DON’T LET OTHERS DELIVER BAD NEWS FOR YOU
If there’s bad news, make sure your key stakeholders and the public hears it from you, not from regulators, the news media or others. Get the bad news out quickly and at once, rather than slowly and piecemeal.
Aileen Pincus is a former reporter, U. S. Senate executive staffer, and public relations executive, who now provides crisis and media training, as well as presentation and speech training, as president of her own communications firm in Maryland. She can be reached at http://www.thepincusgroup.com or at (301) 908-3896