It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and just moments to destroy it. Perhaps it’s a senior leader caught on tape saying or doing something inappropriate. Maybe criminal charges are laid against someone on the team. Or maybe it’s a leaked email or document gone wrong. The fact is if you’re a leader of any organization or company, you will be confronted with a communications challenge at some point — and the people who survive unscathed are the people who are prepared.
But, I am shocked by how many times I get a call from a stressed-out executive who is in the middle of the storm and hasn’t prepared their team – hasn’t prepared to protect their organization’s reputation or their own. It’s fully preventable and, quite frankly, by the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build an ark.
As a former CBC journalist, I have seen reputations that have taken decades to build, crumble to nothing in less than a day. Even if the organization survives, someone at the senior level is typically canned – if for no other reason than to show others it is unacceptable to be unprepared. As a communications consultant, these crisis experiences have proven invaluable in dealing with major corporate crisis situations. You can’t teach the things journalists have seen.
What we can do in a short article like this is give you some guidance to get you thinking about – and assessing – your level of readiness.
Do you have a crisis communications plan?
Among many other things, this plan identifies potential crisis situations and clearly outlines who is on the core crisis team. It will have detailed plans for identifying and communicating quickly and effectively both externally and internally. It will also have systems in place to monitor media and social media coverage in real-time to allow for rapid response and managing issues that weren’t anticipated. The plan is your backbone in a crisis. It is detailed. Make sure it is revisited quarterly with updated contact information.
Have you developed communications protocols for staff?
Whether it’s the receptionist or workers in the field, when a crisis happens, anyone working for your organization is going to be asked questions. They need to have tools to cope, including how to respond to media, the general public, other employees and stakeholders. It will also help them in casual conversations with non-staff who may be asking questions about the crisis. Given the social media networks out there, even regular people need to be treated as reporters of information. Word travels fast. Be disciplined.
Have your identified spokespersons been media trained?
Make sure all of your potential spokespersons are media trained with frequent refresher courses. Communicating is a skill like all others and needs to be worked on constantly. Make sure the person you hire to do the training has substantial past experience as a working journalist — someone who can anticipate what media will ask. Ask for credentials and references.
Have you conducted mock crisis communications scenarios?
Practice makes perfect. Hold mock situations including media interviews. Make sure this is planned and conducted by an outside agency so everyone internally can participate. Although it won’t fully mimic the adrenaline and pressure of an actual crisis, it will help remove some of the ‘fear of the unknown for executives and allow for a healthy post-mortem evaluation with suggestions for improvement.
Stay focused on being transparent
There is often a knee-jerk response in a communications crisis for a company or organization to build a bunker and say as little as possible. This is sometimes aided by their lawyer. Rather than making “saying nothing” your default position, ask your leaders and your lawyers to outline everything and anything you are able to say to the media without creating legal risk or negatively impacting the process. You need to protect your reputation in both a court of law as well as in the court of public opinion (which can often be less forgiving).
Hire experts when it’s bad
This is your reputation we’re talking about. You will likely bring in a lawyer to protect you in the court of law, so bring in someone experienced in protecting people in the court of public opinion. Bring in someone experienced with crisis communications before a crisis happens so they can analyze and report on your state of readiness. Even if you have great communications staff, in a crisis, they will need support and perspective from outside your organizational bubble. Make sure you interview them about their crisis experiences, lessons learned, successes and failures. Check references. Then have them ready as part of your crisis team.
When you bring this recommendation to leadership, there may be pushback and even outright resistance. It’s hard for people to comprehend the value of something they know nothing about. But, at minimum, you can get yourself on record as raising it as an issue needing discussion and a decision.
The fact is that if you wait for the thunder and rain to start before thinking about your crisis communications plan, the best you can do is pray for the best. There is indeed a chance you may survive the storm — but if you do, it will be luck. And luck isn’t leadership. It’s gambling.
Conway Fraser is the Managing Director of Fraser Torosay, a strategic communications company based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He is also a Gemini Award-winning former CBC journalist.
Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.