Fifteen years ago, I became director of communications at a large organization.
I can remember walking into the office I’d occupy for the next four years and finding a dusty, red binder abandoned on the bookshelf.
On the spine was big lettering: “EMERGENCY PLANS” (yes, in all caps). And, there was a layer of dust on it which told me this binder hadn’t been touched in years.
There was a lot of useful information in that binder.
But, it was clear from the first moment that binders with lots of details have little use, especially when a crisis is actually unfolding.
Over time, I came to realize there are several elements common to any kind of emergency.
It doesn’t matter whether it is a fire or other physical emergency, or an information crisis, such as executive misconduct, a merger or acquisition, or unexpected financial or regulatory issues.
Crises can strike any organization at any time.
And as we have seen over the past couple of years, any individual at any level of an organization can rapidly become the face of the organization, not always by choice.
Just look at how many “viral videos” of bad (or supposedly bad) customer service circulate on social media every day.
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Everyone at every level of every organization must know how to recognize an incipient crisis, what to do, and whom to call for help.
The single most important thing is to make sure you alert the right people early enough so they’re able to do something about whatever potentially bad thing may be happening.
In my book, The Communications Golden Hour, I describe the significance of those first actions.
As with trauma care, decisions made within the first hour of a crisis usually determine the outcome.
Organizations which survive are the ones that respond quickly and strategically.
Now, that does not necessarily mean quickly speaking out in public, though that’s often important.
Mostly, it’s about having the awareness to identify crises early on and react smartly and strategically, not clumsily.
Some organizations find it helpful to create fill-in-the-blank templates for all kinds of scenarios.
But it is more important to focus first on those key things that have to happen in every emergency. So let’s talk about what those are.
Who Does Your Organization Serve?
Who is your client? Your customers? Who are you accountable to? Who is your audience when there is a crisis? Which people really must know what is going on?
If you are dealing with physical hazards, who needs to be notified to either stay away or get out? Will you need to let employees know?
Do you need to let neighbors or public officials know? What about shareholders or investors?
Make sure you clearly identify your key stakeholders ahead of a crisis.
This is important, because during a crisis you may not have time to communicate with everybody all at once.
If there is a life safety issue, your first responsibility is to people who are at risk.
Who are those people and how are you going to reach them?
These things matter in a crisis.
We see organizations address problems that may affect them but are outside of their responsibility.
There is a difference between expressing empathy and taking action that is outside your domain.
Moreover, lack of clarity about whom you serve sometimes leads organizations to overlook higher priority actions or to say things that cause problems for collaborators, colleagues, or other people.
A prominent example, a neighboring jurisdiction announced the death of a police officer before the police officer’s own department was able to complete notification of the officer’s family. But they had not yet made their own death announcement.
The jurisdiction making the announcement had wanted to express their sympathy, but they got confused about their role.
They were not the evening news, and their department was not in charge of the incident. So there was no reason they could not have waited.
Instead, they made a bad situation worse because they forgot who’s crisis it was.
Who is in Charge in an Emergency Situation?
If facilities and legal affairs disagree on what the public message should be, who breaks the tie or whose vote counts more?
In universities and government organizations, there may be a specific legal question about who has authority in the day-to-day operations.
And sometimes there is a difference when an emergency is declared.
Even if there is no legal authority question, decisions and communications in emergencies may need legal or executive review.
Be sure to figure this out in advance.
For example, if you have a hazard in a building, your instinct may be to close the building.
But, announcing the “closing” of a building may implicate issues for workers or even for responding police or fire departments.
Are there other ways in which you can say the same thing or have the same effect?
These are things that anybody responding to a crisis should know or be able to find out very quickly.
Remember, you can’t take back an errant statement very effectively.
Crisis Preparation: Know Your Resources
There are many questions you need to ask when planning your crisis communications strategy.
- What kind of internal communications tools do you have?
- How do you get a message to your entire workforce?
- What if the message only needs to go to a certain location or employee group?
- How do you communicate with your community or your customers?
- Who controls outbound marketing email or social media?
- Is there a radio station or other media outlet that is a that is designated for emergency communications in your community?
You should document all of this in advance of a crisis.
- Who is available to be the voice of your organization in a crisis?
- Which employee can activate tools and confirm the right message has been crafted?
- Have you designated someone who can go on camera on short notice if necessary?
- Who can keep cool when others are freaking out?
Every organization needs to have more than one person who is not only media trained but experienced enough to have credibility and calmness under lights and pressure.
Drafting templated messages and practicing many different scenarios are important elements to crisis readiness.
But every organization should start with these essential elements which are common in an emergency.
And by starting there, the rest will follow with a greater likelihood of success.