The First 24 Hours:
How Companies Without a Crisis Communications Plan Can Respond Quickly in a Business Crisis
A corporate communications professional who has been in the midst of a large-scale business crisis remembers the moment of realization that the company’s reputation was at stake. Perhaps it was seeing the front door of their headquarters aired live on CNN, or the surreal feeling when the just-written media statement was being read by Brian Williams to a national TV audience.
It is usually at this time when the organization is either guiding its response by following its crisis management plan or the public relations team is wishing that they had previously prepared one. For many companies, the daily obligations of running a business often place the task of developing a crisis communications plan on the low end of the priority list.
So what does a company do at the onset of a potential crisis without an existing crisis communications plan?
The irony is that many companies ultimately do the right thing when faced with a crisis but move too slowly to fully protect their reputation. When a company is publicly quiet in the early stage of a crisis, it is forced to play defense at the worst possible time – in the face of intense scrutiny by regulators, media, business partners and customers.
While this is perceived as a lack of concern by the company, it is often because companies are not prepared to respond quickly. So why do good companies, with strong leadership and disciplined communications teams, have such difficulty with crisis management? Without a crisis PR plan, they must first focus on overcoming organizational, cultural and psychological barriers within their business before responding to the crisis. These include:
Companies often have not previously identified who needs to be part of the decision-making team that will determine the business strategy nor have they developed an infrastructure to intake multiple media inquiries and respond. They also have no established system to quickly communicate urgent messages to employees, customers, legislators and other key audiences that need to be briefed on the crisis.
There is a well-understood reluctance to be the one who states the threat. The common human reaction in the first hours of a crisis is to minimize the concern because it’s hard to comprehend that it will quickly demand the full attention of the leadership team and the larger organization. In addition, it is initially uncomfortable to adapt to the urgent pace of crisis response.
The way a company responds to a crisis defines what it ultimately stands for. Defining a company’s value is a complicated process in the best of situations and to find agreement during a potential crisis heightens its difficulty. There is time-consuming negotiation involved in determining how the company’s values will guide the response.
So how does a company without a previously established crisis protocol address these complicated issues? A savvy communications practitioner can provide crisis management assistance and play a key role in minimizing the impact a of business crisis with these immediate steps:
Overestimate the threat
No significant action can be taken if there is no clear understanding of the potential threat. Begin by defining the logical worst-case scenarios to public health and/or corporate reputation. While it is rare that a company will be criticized for over-response, many companies spend years to compensate for not taking appropriate action immediately.
Gather the full crisis PR team
Quickly identify and engage the key decision-makers for the response strategy, including senior management and subject matter experts. A strategy could need to be significantly adapted if a key decision-maker is not involved in the early stages, costing valuable time. Incorporating crisis management training in advance can help ensure the proper parties are aware of their roles in the crisis communications process.
Develop an initial, accurate response
No early statement is going to be complete. However, a company must quickly provide a public response that shows concern and includes all verified information that can be released. This information will be widely broadcast so it must be compassionate and factually correct.
Collect, record and respond to media inquiries
Immediately establish a system to identify media calls and have a trained spokesperson respond as quickly as possible. Make sure that the all people who would potentially field media calls have been briefed on how to handle calls.
Build a crisis communications infrastructure
Develop a comprehensive list of all key audiences that need to be contacted and the best way to reach them.
Communicate to important constituents
Talk directly to as many key people as possible to provide accurate information, dispel misinformation and gain other perspectives before they hear from someone else. Key contacts should hear from senior leaders directly.
Reporters and adversaries will turn to previous media coverage and public databases to get the information that will guide their coverage and understanding of the story. Focus on what is on the company’s public record related to this and previous issues and how other companies have handled similar situations.
Bring in an outsider
Experienced crisis communications consultants have a good understanding of the pace of crisis response and can serve as objective messengers to deliver the tough counsel senior leaders need to hear.
Monitor and evaluate strategy
Crisis communications plans need to be nimble to adapt to the changing playing field. Develop systems so that the crisis PR team is receiving real-time information from media, customers and other internal and external sources to inform their decision-making.
Anticipate the future
Often, there are early warning signs related to where the crisis and the public perception will lead. Identify your vulnerabilities in this issue and develop the appropriate response for the “day two” story and beyond.
As a crisis unfolds, the public wants to be reassured that a company is behaving responsibly and safely. When a company does not respond, it quickly loses the trust of its audiences. These tips will help unprepared companies lower the risk in a crisis, but should not be considered a replacement for a well-developed crisis communications plan. Communications professionals who anticipate and prepare for crises will use the first 24 hours much more effectively for the public, their organizations and their own careers. Finally, companies that concentrate on doing the right thing for the public good will find that their response crisis communications strategy will be straight-forward. The companies that come to that conclusion in the first day, rather than the first week, stand a far greater chance of protecting their long-term reputation.