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4 Best Practices for Crisis Communications

by Guest Writter
Jeffrey Hayzlett

Crisis communications affects everyone – big and small companies alike. In the past few years, we’ve seen major brands go through a number of crises – from Sea World’s backlash from the movie “Blackfish,” to Chipotle closing some stores due to E.coli concerns, to industry giants like Wells Fargo and their fraudulent accounts scandal.

The thing about crisis communications is it doesn’t matter how big or small your company is, you can’t ignore crisis communication. It affects everyone at some point; the only difference is how it affects everyone.

Some brands are great at handling a crisis. Their response is swift, clear and decisive. Others aren’t so great at it. Their message is muddled, tone deaf and even combative.

A great example of how to navigate the waters of a crisis? Skittles. Their direct response to a tweet from Donald Trump, Jr comparing a bowl of Skittles to Syrian refugees gained them praise across social media.

How do you plan and prepare for everything from a tweet to a major financial crisis? By having a solid crisis communications strategy. A documented, well-thought-out plan with actionable tactics. Like every sports team, having a playbook makes navigating any crisis more manageable, less painful and, hopefully, ensures a positive outcome.

Here are four best practices you can deploy during a crisis.

Have a plan, work the plan.

2013 study by the Institute of Internal Auditors said that only 54% of respondents had a crisis plan. That’s just foolish! Not having a plan is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. You can never fully predict when a crisis will hit or what the fallout will be, but about 90% of potential crises are known.

Now that you’re ready to start working on a plan, have the team come up with all types of scenarios – from the possible to the impossible. What are the most common scenarios in your industry? A disgruntled customer? Stolen documents? An offensive social media campaign?

Whatever those scenarios are, here’s where you start drafting the plan.

  • A solid crisis communications plan includes:
    • holding statements
    • emergency contacts
    • an audit you can complete as facts are uncovered
    • approved messaging
    • templated press releases
    • social media policy
    • designated spokespersons (have more than one)
  • Prepare holding statements for every scenario, no matter how unlikely they may seem. I’ve had holding statements for everything from a negative social media situation to a terrorist threat. Coverall your bases.
  • Designate the team. Ensure you have representation from critical areas like legal, HR, marketing, PR and adequate representation from your c-suite.
  • Have a back-up to the back-up. Inevitably during a crisis, the head of legal will be on a vacation or your CEO will be inroute to Dubai and unreachable. The home team should be empowered to make critical decisions without having everyone present. Or designate an alternate. The plan should clearly outline roles and responsibilities.
  • Disseminate information. Know how critical information gets to the right people, in the right place and at the right time. Journalists, customers and others may be calling. How are your receptionists, your call center teams or others prepared to answer questions? Everyone needs to be on the same page and know how to respond should someone call or even stop by.

Work with what you know

Once a crisis hits, the team needs to quickly ascertain the level or significance of the situation. Sometimes it’s just a small issue, sometimes it’s more. And it can change over time or circumstance. You must be prepared for anything.

Once you assess the situation, determine the facts. What do you know? Respond quickly, factually, genuinely.

  • Document all of the necessary information, including:
    • A brief description of what happened
    • What is being done to rectify the situation
    • Steps being taken to prevent the situation from happening again
    • Key contacts, names and details like time, location and anything else that is known
    • A website, social media handle/page or toll-free number for additional assistance or information

When it’s an appropriate time to respond to a crisis? The old adage was respond within the hour. Social media turned that on its head. Once news break on social media, you need to be ready to respond in seconds. Your social media team should monitor the conversation online and respond quickly with what is known, appropriate apologies or statements. Not responding is not an option.

A word of caution, don’t let speed be a detractor from getting your message out to the public. Be quick, but be precise. Leave no room for misinterpretation. Once again, refer to the Skittles response I mentioned earlier — short, quick, and to the point.

Create a “war room” for the crisis team. Your war room should be kept away from the core of your business, out of immediate sight and contact with employees, customers or others while the team assesses the situation. While you work through things, make sure the information is contained. Don’t use the same printer the rest of the company uses. Until you know more, being a little cautious, even a little paranoid, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Own it, fix it

Implement a communications strategy that keeps customers, stakeholders, and employees informed of everything that is known. Being upfront and honest is critical. Mitigate issues early on. Wells Fargo failed on all counts. They failed to apologize soon enough and underestimated the gravity of the situation. If your company falters, fails or makes a mistake, don’t keep your mouth shut. Own it. Apologize for it. And make steps to make it right, quickly.

Ask for help when you need it

An outside perspective can provide clarity and remove the emotion or opinion from a crisis. Consider hiring a consultant or third party expert who can guide you through or speak to media and customers. I’ve worked with CEOs and Chief Legal Counsels who would rather take the hard line than issue a response that was effective and contained the right sentiment or messaging. That outside expert has navigated issues like this before and can offer credibility, experience and expertise you may not have within your company.

The biggest mistake in a crisis situation is doing nothing. Be prepared, work the plan, respond quickly and take appropriate action – LEAD. Your customers and your team may even thank you for it.


About the Author

Jeffrey Hayzlett is a primetime television and radio host of C-Suite with Jeffrey Hayzlett and Executive Perspectives on C-Suite TV and All Business with Jeffrey Hayzlett on C-Suite Radio. Hayzlett is a global business celebrity, speaker, best-selling author, and Chairman of C-Suite Network, home of the world’s most powerful network of C-Suite leaders. Connect with Hayzlett on Twitter, FacebookLinkedInGoogle+ or www.hayzlett.com.

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