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Plan for the Unexpected

Originally published
Originally published: 5/11/2021

A crisis communications plan is essential to your business.


As CEOs, it is our responsibility to prepare for the unexpected. Such planning means making sure operations can continue in the face of a crisis or disruption and it means keeping an up-to-date business continuity plan.

It also means being ready to communicate — at the drop of a hat, to all audiences and stakeholder groups — about the unexpected, especially if it’s negative. The coronavirus pandemic has offered numerous lessons in how to communicate effectively when faced with a crisis.

And, what we’ve learned is that even if you are caught off guard and are not prepared operationally, communicating clearly and honestly can maintain your company’s reputation and keep your customers, employees and business partners confident in your response.

Crisis communications or reputation management, are the terms used in the public relations field for planning and preparing a strategy to respond to any negative event, including worst-case scenarios.

Organizations that successfully plan and practice how to respond to a crisis are more ready to react effectively in situations where personal emotions and the need for immediate statements can get in the way of a CEO’s typical clear and rational thinking. And, if your company is prepared, you’ll more easily overcome the disruption smoothly, as well as leave your customers, partners and employees with a lasting and positive experience.

How you handle a crisis can build lifelong trust and loyalty — if you are prepared and ready.

I have counseled numerous companies through crisis situations — everything from illegal immigrants, negativity around organized labor contract negotiations, misconduct by key executives and tragic job-related deaths and injuries, including suicides.

With the advent of social media and 24/7 news reporting, we have all witnessed stories about companies who have done a poor job of handling communications during a crisis. And, so many poor performers means the companies who do handle a crisis well stand out even more.

Most of us know we are not immune to a crisis, but few of us are as prepared as we should be for an unexpected event.

Minutes Turn Into Seconds

Warren Buffet said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” This couldn’t be more relevant today. With access to social media, those five minutes are more like seconds.

This is the reason it is critical to have a communications plan that is ready to launch and implement and that you have practiced with dry-run simulations. That way, you feel at least a little bit more “experienced” when a crisis strikes.

You’ll be answering questions you’ve heard at least once before. You’ll have thought through how different response could be perceived. This kind of communications “muscle memory” is a key to being prepared, because in a real crisis, you won’t have time to think through which option is better or call your executive team to deliberate the best response.

Being slow to act is one of the main reasons companies see their reputations slip in times of crisis. You’ll need to act fast and with confidence.

Be Prepared

A good plan considers all possible crisis situations the company could encounter — anything from a disgruntled employee who uses social media as a platform to air complaints, to a tragic accident or occurrence and everything in between.

It’s time well spent to brainstorm some of the most damaging possible crises, as well as some minor ones that are much more likely to occur.

Establish a company policy to guide employees on what to do should any of the potential situations arise. Put it in the form of a numbered, step-by-step list of actions to take. With easy access to this kind of checklist or plan of action, employees don’t need to worry about making judgement calls or getting prior approval, they can just move ahead and react and respond quickly and appropriately.

Consider a company code of ethics as an additional guide in the event an employee should have to step in due to unforeseen circumstances. The code will help employees in those situations where there may be more complex responses needed and they can measure their reactions to be sure they are making a well-considered move.

Focus on People First

A company’s first response is to attend to the safety and health of any employee—or any persons involved. Your plan and checklist should identify emergency response issues such as injury, death and how and when to contact family members.

The more details in your plan, the better. Consider including sample scripts to answer questions or for providing needed information. Fact sheets, webpages and how to quickly locate relevant informational and reference materials should be in the plan too.

A company’s second response is to dig into the cause of the problem or situation. Get the facts. This should be done with the company’s leadership and its legal and communications counsel.

Include details in your plan about how your firm documents daily activities and how to access those records or others that could help offer more information on any incident or situation.

A company’s third response is to develop a communications strategy — and to provide a statement to its public audiences — employees, customers, vendors, the media and whoever else needs to be informed.

If there are other companies affected, you may want to work with them to coordinate a response. Often the response will include a recap of the steps above — stating that the priority is the people involved, whether it’s customers or company employees, that you are looking into the incident or issue and that you will be making further announcements as you get more clarity and information.

Even if you have limited information, you can say you are still gathering facts and you’d rather wait to discuss the situation until you have them. The key is to be open and forthcoming in a timely manner.

Depending on the situation, this may all need to come together in a matter of a few hours —sometimes less. Having a plan, especially one that has been tested and practiced, will help you get the job done effectively and within the time constraints. It will also help if you maintain an updated company fact sheet and have good media relationships already in place.

In all cases, a company should determine at least two senior company representatives and arm them with facts about the situation and comments about how the company is responding to the situation.

This does not mean that they need to have all the answers, but it does mean that they are available, responsive and working openly and honestly with everyone.

It is important to approach a crisis situation with genuine concern for the affected parties and the facts about the situation. And, remember: The world is watching.


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