By: David Sykes
We all have days when the unexpected happens and in the world of PR and comms, a perfectly normal day can give way to a crisis at any moment.
Maybe someone’s had an accident, your secure database of client data has been compromised, a member of staff said something foolish or some nasty rumour is doing the rounds on social media.
In business, crises can come in all shapes and sizes and in the same way that a company can take steps to avoid many crises from happening, they can also take steps to ensure they protect their reputation by responding appropriately.
The most important thing is not to panic.
A calm, comprehensive, well-articulated and circulated response is the solution to any crisis but you won’t be able to deliver that if you’re not across the situation, you’ve not thought things through and if you don’t really know what to do.
Instead, pick up the phone and call your ‘crisis comms team’ and calmly and coolly execute the ‘crisis comms plan’ which will set out exactly what needs to happen so your clients reputation can be protected using a strategy that was created days, weeks or months ago.
Understanding the need for a crisis comms plan
The principle behind a crisis comms plan is that it’s best to plan in peacetime. Adrenaline might make you faster, stronger and more likely to win a fist fight, but it also makes you stupid and you can reliably discard every idea you have in the heat of a crisis because you’re not thinking clearly.
As a PR, what your client needs to understand is that every possible reputational crisis can be predicted well ahead of it happening and that a perfectly planned response for each possible scenario will mean that the two of you are ready and capable of diffusing a situation and making the best of it as soon as it arises.
A well planned, drafted and tested crisis comms strategy will enable your client to focus on running their business and they can be confident that everything is being done to protect their reputation and make the best of a bad situation and no-one has to tear their hair out coming up with bad ideas when the heat is on.
Looking for trouble
When we create a crisis comms plan with a client, we arrange a meeting with the head of marketing, the PR team that’s working on the account and potentially the managing director or CEO of the company. There may be a few additional people needed at the meeting depending on the company’s structure but these core people will typically be the most appropriate figures to form the company’s new ‘crisis comms team’.
One they’re assembled, we would then get the team to list everything that could possibly damage the company’s reputation and what publicity problems could pop up without warning.
These meetings aren’t as as doom-and-gloom as they might sound; it easy to lighten the mood in the meetings as you challenge the team to imagine every awful thing that might happen with everything from an unhappy client taking to social media to state-sponsored cyber hacking stealing all their data, or even a company director being exposed as a secret crook.
Another crucial step at this point in the process is to get the inside information on any known threats to the company’s reputation and any known problems that could become crisis in future. For total transparency, it’s important that everything in the meeting will be discussed in confidence so that the crisis comms team can be prepared for every skeleton that might come out of a company’s closet.
Once all of these possible crises are listed, the next step is to consider and discuss the best ways of dealing with each of them.
Planning your response
Every company has a different way of communicating and presenting itself to its customers and to the public and so when considering how to respond to each crisis, it’s important to bear this in mind and make sure the other members of the team are aware of the company’s own style.
Understanding the voice of the company and how its target audience perceive it goes a long way in determining how it should respond to a crisis: It would seem odd for companies like KFC, Paddy Power or Innocent Smoothies which have a light-hearted and cheeky voice in their social media and advertising to give a dry, corporate and humourless response to all but the most serious of crises. Equally, a company that’s built a reputation for professionalism and sobriety wouldn’t dream of cracking a smile about even the slightest problem. Knowing their voice and how customers perceive them is what enabled KFC to conquer a crisis with their magnificent ‘FCK bucket’ and it just wouldn’t have been right for them to be giving serious and stale press conferences or statements instead.
As we discuss the reactions for each of the scenarios we’ve listed, we’d decide what would be stated and how we’d communicate our messages, with what we’d say or do when the crisis first emerges and what we’d do if the crisis escalated.
Not every crisis would warrant a written statement being sent to all target media, some situations would be better handled with press conferences, live interviews for broadcast media, or social media posts and emails to customers or a combination of all available platforms.
During this meeting, we wouldn’t be going into excessive detail; plotting a reaction for each scenario takes time and it requires the specialist knowledge and attention to detail that only the PR team can provide, but it would put the framework in place.
The final step of the crisis comms meeting is to create a list of contact details for each person who needs to be on the crisis comms team, including out of hours contacts so that each member of the team can contact each other in a crisis. This lays the groundwork for the first step in any crisis which is that any member who becomes aware of a crisis should contact the other members of the team as soon as possible to notify them of the issue and to remind them of the next steps that need to be taken.
Getting it ready
Once the meeting is over, our PR team would then write up a series of template responses and, if required, press statements for every one of the scenarios that we discussed in the meeting. Whether they’re tweets, emails to customers or media statements, everything would be written up with only the details of the exact nature of the crisis to be added or updated if and when the situation occurs.
Once these are written, we would then present these to the other members of the crisis comms team who would amend or approve each of the statements, assigning a spokesperson for each one if appropriate who would also sign off the templated statement or quote.
Hopefully, these responses will never need to be used, but they’re ready and waiting just in case and they’d be saved on a secure cloud server so they can be easily accessed should they ever be needed.
For situations where an interview or press conference would be required, we would provide coaching for the appropriate spokespeople in advance so they have the confidence to represent the company during a difficult situation and put the right message across to the media.
The final step is to write up a straight-forward set of instructions for people at different levels throughout the company. The members of the crisis comms team will have a set of step-by-step instructions of who needs to do what in each of the pre-planned scenarios while others in the company need to know that if they ever become aware of a crisis, they should contact a member of the crisis comms team as soon as they can.
This document would also tell employees how to engage with the media if and when they contact the company about a crisis and, typically, this would mean identifying the nature of the call, obtaining their contact details and recording the time when they got in contact and then to sharing this with the media or crisis comms team. Crucially, they must never say anything which could be construed as a response from the company.
Once that’s done, we wait hope that these excellent crisis plans will never be put into action.
Putting the plan into action
Of course, as the saying goes, whatever can go wrong will go wrong, but when the proverbial hits the fan in future, everyone can stay calm because everything is in place for the situation to be handled smoothly and effectively.
One of our crisis comms plans was put into practice a few months ago when a client had a minor emergency. Our customer had been informed of the matter by a member of staff and they called me to explain the situation.
Together, we identified our most appropriate strategy from the list of scenarios we’d planned for and we were able to put our plan into action. We filled in the blanks on our response, we got it signed off and then we distributed it using the appropriate platforms. In this case, we determined that the best course of action was, as planned, an email sent to their customers informing them of the issue, apologising for the inconvenience and offering reassurance about what was being done about it.
The plan worked perfectly; it meant that the client was able to respond to the crisis, take charge of the situation, give their clients the correct information and protect the brand’s reputation.
The whole crisis was resolved without any negative headlines and no-one needed to panic. The company was seen to be open and transparent, it put its customers first and set out exactly what it was doing to rectify the situation.
Creating a crisis comms plan can seem like a daunting task but as soon as they’re prepared and tested, they’re the only ultimate defence for a company’s reputation. Because they’re planned in peacetime with care and attention to detail, there’s no need for anyone to panic when things go wrong and there’s no need for any rash decisions made in the heat of a crisis. All your client needs to do is follow the plan… and don’t panic.