A Crisis Communications PlanAlright, I’m going to admit I didn’t sleep much last night because GAME SIX OF THE WORLD SERIES!

But it’s 5 a.m. and I need to accomplish something today (before GAME SEVEN OF THE WORLD SERIES), so let’s see how we do.

Let’s talk about what happens if you or someone in your organization posts something on social media that goes awry.

Are you prepared?

What if you are Pete Codella—the man who tweeted that Theresa Payton’s shirt was distracting during the PRSA International conference last week—and you don’t think you did anything wrong?

Are you prepared?

What if you truly believe people are being “hyper-sensitive,” yet you still have to respond to the criticism and detractors.

Are you prepared?

First Step: Accept Responsibility

As it turns out, Pete Codella was not prepared…nor does he think he did anything wrong.

Mike Doute, a PR student at Eastern Michigan University, got Codella on the phone and interviewed him about the tweet, the apology, and what’s next.

You can read the article (linked above), but the gist of it is that he believes the following:

  • He was giving advice to a fellow speaker that is akin to someone pulling him aside at a speaking engagement to mention that the vent on his suit jacket was still stitched closed.
  • We should accept other people’s points-of-view without tearing them down.
  • We are in a time where people are “hyper-sensitive,” he has a very conservative background, and Payton should be aware of how her shirt affects those of his kind.
  • He is the victim, people are being rude to him, and the PR industry is full of meanies.
  • The meetings he’ll have with HR and his boss are because of the responses to the tweet, not because of what he said.
  • He’s going to lose his right to post sexist rhetoric on Twitter.
  • Because Trump posts awful things on social media, he also has that right.

I can imagine Codella’s entire conference was derailed because of his tweet.

Second Step: Plan and Be Prepared

He’s likely learned there is never a good time for a crisis to strike.

It’s something completely out of anyone’s sphere of control.

What is under our control, however, is our ability to have a fully thought out crisis communications plan.

(Or, in this case, not tweet that remark at all, but hey…what’s done is done.)

But, as it turns out, nearly half of all companies haven’t sketched out even a basic skeleton of a crisis communications plan.

The excuses for not having a plan in place usually center around not having the time, or having a “we’ll deal with it when we need to” attitude.

But, as Codella has proven, when you are in the eye of a public crisis, you’re not going to be capable of making confident, thoughtful decisions.

It takes planning in advance, without the pressure of a looming disaster, to come up with a cohesive crisis communications plan that can keep your organization’s reputation intact.

Third Step: Define Your Crisis Communications Plan

When we work with clients to document their crisis communications plans, we walk through the following questions:

  1. What’s the worst thing that could happen? This is where you brainstorm every possible worst case scenario that could happen to your organization. This should capture everything from marketing campaigns that go off the rails (like this Sea World campaign), to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Not all crisis has an external source, either. Prepare for things your executive team could do, such as poorly thought out social media posts, sexual harassment, or tax evasion. And prepare for things employees might share on social media. Make sure to cast a broad net when sourcing your scenarios. You can do this by brainstorming with people across departments and at varying levels of experience.
  2. Is this scenario an issue or a crisis? An issue is a kerfuffle. It won’t damage your company’s reputation or your bottom line. But if you don’t deal with it quickly, it could morph into a crisis. A crisis, in comparison, immediately and negatively affects your company’s reputation. It results in a significant loss of revenue. A negative comment directed at your company on Facebook is an issue. Your product exploding and being banned from being taken aboard aircraft by the FAA is a crisis.
  3. How big is our risk? Not all crises demand all-hands-on-deck and sleeping in the office until they are resolved. Rank your scenarios on a scale of one to three, Three is low risk (but still important) and one has you setting up sleeping bags in the boardroom.
  4. Is it preventable? You can’t prevent every unhappy customer or predict manufacturing issues that can cause a need for product recalls, but there are some things you can at least work towards preventing (such as an ill-conceived marketing campaign or a sexist tweet) through better due diligence or more thorough planning and training.
  5. What would escalate a crisis? Sometimes a crisis may start off as a three, but rapidly escalate. What are factors that could cause an escalation?
  6. Who needs to know and when? Although some people like to call a news conference whenever a thought enters their heads, not all crises merit public mass communication. If you receive a negative review on an industry review site, for instance, you should make your sales and customer service teams aware of it, and provide some talking points, but you don’t need to issue a news release refuting it point-by-point (over-defensive much?). But if an executive is leaving the company to head up a rival firm, pretty much everyone needs to know, starting with your employees, board members, and investors. Failure to get out in front of a story like this is a great example of how a crisis escalates.

But the most important, first step of a crisis communications plan is accepting responsibility for what went wrong.

Until Codella can do that, none of the advance planning will help him.

You may face something similar with executives, bosses, or clients.

But the more you are prepared, the better able you’ll be in keeping a cool head and reacting thoughtfully when the unexpected inevitably does arise.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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