Communication
May 14, 2013

Why your crisis communication plan is a waste

Chances are good your organization has a crisis communications plan. Sitting in a binder somewhere, it has written documentation on any situation imaginable. And it’s entirely useless.

There are problems with the binder many crisis communication consultants won’t tell you about.

The binder is a placebo
Public sector agencies that rely on protocols and approvals are purely reactionary. The protocols are there to create the illusion of control. But this false sense of control means it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – those very controls are the reasons those same agencies find they also rely on “the binder.”

Let’s be honest here: most binders sit on a shelf. One person or a small team puts it together, senior management gives it a glance, it’s approved, and everyone goes home feeling proud. Then it’s ignored for months.

This makes the binder not just useless – it makes it dangerous. The only thing worse than not being prepared for an emergency is thinking you are.

The San Diego Zoo has a poisonous snake exhibit. Behind each exhibit, in an area closed to the public, are an alarm button, a mini-fridge, and a recliner. In the event a zookeeper is bitten, he or she leaves the exhibit, presses the alarm and sits down.

The alarm signals emergency personnel. They find the zookeeper sitting in the chair, where they will administer antivenin from the mini-fridge. An ambulance is enroute.

But – antivenin has a short shelf life. Sometimes, that shelf life is too short, and there is no antivenin available. When there is no antivenin, the zoo puts a large red stop sign on the door as a warning – and removes the mini fridge.

Removing the fridge sends a not-so-subtle reminder. “Hey, if you’re going into this cage, you do so at considerably increased risk. If you get bitten, we can only keep you comfortable.”

The zookeeper understands the risk. The work still gets done, but the zookeeper is going to be far more careful, and pay much closer attention.

Unread binders are the same as empty mini-fridges. You’re just fooling yourself by thinking you’re prepared.

The binder isn’t always there
Emergency procedures for a facility fire do no good when that binder is actually on fire. If terrorists seize control of your facility, employees can’t risk life and limb to sneak into offices and smuggle out a binder. Similarly, electronic copies of the binder do no good in the event of a massive power outage or Internet failure.

You didn’t write the binder
Chances are good a committee wrote your crisis communications binder. Committees are awesome – in their ability to mangle the sensible. You can create amazingly horrible communications when a committee writes them.

How do you expect to communicate effectively when your primary spokesperson didn’t write the key messages? Does a template take into account the history of an issue? Does it consider external events shaping public opinion? Does it recognize what other ministries are doing in response to your problems? Of course not.

The binder isn’t comprehensive
No matter how much planning you do, it can never be enough. The stuff that bites you, and really hurts you, you didn’t prepare for. You couldn’t have. The truly bizarre, outlandish events – the 9/11’s or Icelandic ash clouds that affected air travel, for example – simply can’t be predicted.

If your team is prepared to deal with it, it’s not a crisis. It’s business as usual. It’s a bad day, but it’s not a crisis. After all, no matter what you do, it stands to reason something will go wrong. That doesn’t make you a villain. It makes you normal.

The solution The solution is shockingly simple – albeit scary. Give your people the skills they need to communicate effectively in a crisis. Give them training, not in mere “media training,” but high-risk communications. Have spokespeople (and backups) designated and in place, and know how to find them 24/7. Give them the freedom to work. Let them communicate, quickly. And yes, this means communicating without an approval process.

“Impossible!” you cry. “We can’t possibly give someone permission to talk to reporters without approval from higher ups!” But who said anything about media? Calming an upset stakeholder, a member of the public or a fellow bureaucrat before the issue escalates neutralizes issues before they become media friendly.

Being proactive isn’t just good customer service, it’s an effective tool to keep your organization out of the headlines.

Jeff Chatterton will be speaking at the World Conference on Disaster Management in June.

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