Crisis communications is the corporate equivalent of combat experience. There’s no substitute for fighting in the trenches, dealing with the fog of war, and revising plans and tactics on the fly as the situation changes.
Everyone in communications knows a well-executed crisis plan when they see it: crisp, focused messages, public statements in sync with legal filings, ground support from third parties and friends, and an approach that makes it more likely that the news life of the event is short-lived rather than a death march. But there’s much more than the publicly executed facet of crisis communications. Just as important is the inside game: ensuring that the executive team and your employees have the information they need.
A crisis isn’t just a media relations issue – involve all the right players.
Give the executive team confidence in the process.
Recognize that employees need context in addition to talking points.
It’s easy to focus on the media when you’re executing a crisis plan but there are many more stakeholders and some are much more important. If you’re a publicly traded company, you should consider direct communication with the ratings agencies that cover you in addition to communications to the investment community generally. Heavily regulated business? Your regulators need to know not just the facts about the root of the crisis, but how you are going to communicate publicly. Involve the government affairs team. Your key elected officials should hear from you at the earliest possible time. No one likes surprises during a crisis and that’s particularly true of Members of Congress.
The C-suite will likely have its hands full as it deals with the crisis itself. The last thing they need is a crisis in communications. Beyond creating a solid plan for handling communications, one of the best services a communications team can provide is giving the executive team confidence that there is a solid plan for handling communications. The best way to provide this is to give them a complete high level plan that includes:
The key messages common to all communications
An execution schedule showing what communications are being delivered, in what form, and by whom.
An approval schedule showing who is vetting the plan and on what timetable.
Confidence in the plan comes from seeing that all audiences are being addressed, knowing who is responsible for which components, and finally, knowing who will be reviewing the plan. Deliver all of those pieces of information in a four-page deck and the executive team will have confidence that communications is handled and they can focus on the core issues.
Key messages and talking points are great for helping employees answer the first question from a customer or someone in the community. It’s the second or third questions where they can run into problems. When an employee tells a customer “We’re cooperating fully and hope to have this behind us as quickly as possible” the customer is likely to ask “So how did this come about?” or another follow up question. What you don’t want is for your employee to say, “All I know is we’re cooperating fully and hope to have this behind us as quickly as possible.”
You can avoid that by giving them even a little context. When you provide talking points, include a couple of paragraphs of background that you would be comfortable seeing in a newspaper story. It shouldn’t be too heavy on numbers and specific dates and it shouldn’t read like an appellate brief. Just provide a plain English explanation of how we got where we are and when it started. That’s really all most customers will want to know anyway.
Don’t make crisis communications a two-front war. Your team needs to be focused on communicating with the outside world and your employees, not dealing with continuing internal questions about tactics and timing. A good inside plan solves that.