8 often-overlooked steps to take before crisis strikes

As we’ve seen disasters come in all shapes and sizes, and dealing with a pandemic is quite unlike walking back a CEO’s PR gaffe. Still, these fundamentals can help you keep your business afloat.

BE PREPARED and PREPARATION IS THE KEY plan perform Business concept

In a crisis, company leaders turn to communicators to limit reputational damage, yet many communicators feel underprepared to right the ship should disaster strike.

Here are eight easy measures you can take now to ensure you’re ready for any gales and swells that might arise:

1. Build trust with legal now. Communicators and legal teams work best when they’re partners before a crisis, says Nancy Bistritz-Balkan, director of cybersecurity communications at McKesson. She’s had considerable experience handling crises from a communications perspective in prior senior communications roles at Experian and CHEP USA, among others.

“Take the lead, and set up a meeting with your legal team,” she says. “The agenda should just be to create a mutual understanding about what needs to be communicated in various crisis situations. Put yourself in their shoes, and be receptive to working around language.”

She advises following up with meetings focused on reviewing copy. For example, she recalls, an attorney at a previous employer would read her copy and say, “I understand what you’re trying to do, but I need to help you change the language.”

Over time, she learned to approach legal advisors with “proposed language.”

“That’s the mindset you want to adopt,” she says. “You’ll gradually develop a deeper level of trust that will pay off when a crisis finally strikes.”

2. Identify potential risks now. Ask yourself what your organizations’ top 10 risks are and what unplanned events could arise for those risks.

“Make an educated assessment of both the likelihood and potential severity of each risk to prioritize your planning efforts,” says Bristritz-Balkan. “Some will cause major disruption, while others will be a minor irritation. They will usually fall into the categories of strategic risks, operational risks, reputational risks and compliance risks.”

3. Create plans for your crises now. Bistritz-Balkan says the next step is to map out what the crisis organization will look like for each threat and determining when they will be activated.

“That includes building the team, identifying the spokesperson, training the spokesperson and then establishing protocols like phone trees,” she says. “Include C-suite, PR and legal members in each team. Keep in mind that your CEO may be a great business leader, but not necessarily the best spokesperson.”

4. Develop templates for each scenario now. Engage in scenario planning once you have your potential threats and protocols pinpointed.

“Have a great writer help craft what these unplanned scenarios could look like, “says Bistritz-Balkan. “Each scenario should include an overview of the situation, website content, FAQs for internal and external audiences, talking points for sales, customer letters and company emails.”

That’s just the bare minimum. Scenario planning templates should also include:

  • First steps checklist
  • Internal and external communications checklists
  • Media policy
  • Social media policy
  • Media call logs (Excel spreadsheet)
  • Media holding statements
  • Fact sheets
  • Profiles and biographies
  • Copies of logos and/or photos
  • Contact information for employees
  • Contact information for internal legal advisors, outside counsel, contractors, etc.

5. Identity and target stakeholders now. It’s easy to overlook a key stakeholder when “it” hits the fan, warns Bistritz-Balkan. She recommends identifying essential crisis stakeholders now so you can craft more targeted templates now for distribution later. These typically include:

  • Employees
  • Board of directors
  • Acquisitions
  • Consumers
  • B2C customers
  • B2B customers
  • Government
  • Regulators
  • Journalists
  • Analysts

6. Keep calm later by rehearsing now. Crisis communications plans are never final. Expect the unexpected, but control now whatever you can by practicing early and often.

“Rehearse and critique all of your biggest crisis scenarios at least once every 12 months,” advises Bistritz-Balkan. “Then be sure to implement improvements to processes or other changes that come out of these exercises.”

When it comes to table-top exercises, her advice is to simply:

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities
  • Determine decision-making authority
  • Identify mitigation and preparedness needs
  • Continue improvement for business continuity following an event

7. Minimize social media risk now. A commonly overlooked risk-mitigation step is educating staff about internal rules for social media use, says Ronald Gilliam, technology chief of staff at American Express and a former internal communications manager at S&P Global.

“However, it’s never too late to conduct training,” he says. “It can be a simple as a webinar or video. For example, we use an animated interactive video as part of a required social media compliance course and have found that our employees learn and retain new information at a higher level in this format.”

8. Prep and protect your intranet now. Enterprise intranets are vital in crises, because they’re often the primary channel for employee communication.

“That’s why it’s important to front-load your intranet alert messaging,” says Gilliam. “You won’t have time when a crisis actually happens.”

He recommends creating offline templates and writing guides for your crisis communications in advance. This ensures that your intranet messaging will match the company’s style and tone while conveying crucial details succinctly.

“These guidelines will help you respond more quickly,” Gilliam says, “but they’ll also allow your audience to more easily understand important information.”

Still, intranets pose inherent risks of their own. Many are cloud-based, which can make them vulnerable to hackers, viruses and malware.

The solution is education.

“Internal communicators can assist by sharing ways in which employees can contribute to the security of their intranet,” he says. “That includes creating a strong password, using a VPN when on a private Wi-Fi network, and never sharing content outside of the intranet environment.”

Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and event producer.


One Response to “8 often-overlooked steps to take before crisis strikes”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Terrific! The excellence of this PR Daily wisdom can give lauded crisis PR experts LOH, Late Onset Humility.

    What makes great PR firms worth all that money is not just guiding clients to emerge successfully from crisis but guidance like the above that helps clients AVERT crises.

    On the good side you help management to avoid severe economic and emotional damage from information wars. But on the less appealing side, averting PR war can be much less profitable than fighting and winning.

    Many political leaders and activists love to attack industry partly for the fun of inflicting pain—sort of white collar sadism—and partly for the joy of getting national publicity for seeming to fight bravely against greedy companies on behalf of the public. Companies are classically accused of “caring more about profits than about people.”

    But the Jungle Law of Public Relations is that the strong tend to attack the weak, not the strong. So when companies become informationally muscular by preparing as suggested in the above article, political and activist predators have incentive to go attack someone else who may be less prepared.

    Years ago a hugely successful Washington PR firm repeatedly guided the tuna fish industry—fleet owners and canners—to avoid unduly restrictive laws that could have decimated industry profits. Every few years the profit-decimation proposals surfaced but trouble was averted by thorough PR preparation. THEN a new leader of the tuna industry questioned “what do we need with” the high-priced PR firm and it was dumped.

    So the PR geniuses went to work on other accounts. But political leaders and activists once again attacked the industry and this time, without guidance from the expensive-but-well-worth-it PR firm, the industry lost!
    The tuna boats and canneries were sold for pennies on the dollar to wealthy Asians. Today our ever-popular tuna fish comes from Asia.

    I don’t know what happened to America’s former owners of tuna boats and canneries. Or whether the former industry leader ever realized the answer to his question of “what do we need with” the high-priced and high-wisdom PR firm that had protected our tuna industry.

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