This article originally appeared on PR Daily in November of 2017.
Many PR pros await Thanksgiving festivities with anticipation—some with dread.
Chock full of over-indulgence, “quality” family time, horrendous travel delays, screaming children and full-contact family brawls, this time of year is intense, exciting, stressful and wonderful all at the same time.
Given that Thanksgiving celebrations of one kind or another have occurred for over 600 years, you would think more people would be prepared for the potential pitfalls endemic in the holiday. Yet, every year everyone forgets the effect that tight time schedules, travel nightmares and forced fun can have on their stress levels.
Don’t fret. Here’s a foolproof guide from your neighborhood crisis communications professional to help ensure this year’s Thanksgiving is filled with warm fuzzies rather than white hot fury.
Step one: Risk assessment.
What could feasibly happen to throw the day off balance? How likely is such an event, and just how damaging will it be? Is Aunt Lydia’s cooking going to lead to a marshmallow sweet potato inferno or her famous cumin-infused cranberry surprise?
Don’t forget to prioritize. Are you more concerned that Uncle Eddie’s political opinions will inflame the post-dinner debate or that he’ll feel left out of the family fun? By identifying the most significant threats to the big day you can make sure you’re fully prepared to prevent them—or at least mitigate their effects.
Step two: Advance planning.
The good news is that many potential challenges can be planned for ahead of time; venue and transportation should be the easiest obstacles to overcome.
Whether or not to include in-laws can spark the most challenging conversations of the year. The best approach is to do your research, work out your key messages, get your talking points together and engage openly with your partner. As soon as a decision is made, draft your external position statement and share it with your key audiences.
If your mother-in-law finds out your plans from someone else, you risk a holiday-season-long guilt trip. Get ahead of leaks to control of the narrative and ensure the news is received as positively as possible. Communicate some audience benefits to earn bonus points—after all, your mother-in-law already has so many people coming; you wouldn’t want to add to her stress. Frame your narrative.
Step three: Engage key stakeholders.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Thanksgiving travel is the original “Nightmare Before Christmas.” Give your travel schedule a buffer so that delays don’t lead to celebrating the holiday with Sbarro’s and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels.
No matter what, remember even the most detailed plans must be able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Whether a competitor beats you to a product launch or a snowstorm delays holiday flights, even the best communications professional has to relinquish control sometimes. Remember to ensure that your rapid response team is informed and able to change tack where needed. Transparency at this stage can prevent tears before bedtime.
Step three: Execute.
Thanksgiving dinner is a more complicated affair today than it was back in 1621 and as such, clear tasks, responsibilities and KPIs are fundamental to a delivering promised delights. Build your timeline, delegate to the team and use regular check-ins to monitor progress with some honest feedback.
A few choice words of encouragement never hurt anyone—unlike Aunt Lydia’s infamous Tabasco cornbread of 2008. Don’t ask.
Finally, don’t even think about sitting down to dinner without putting some thought into the seating arrangements. Who’s politically incorrect? Who’s the instigator? Who’s the most sensitive? The more you plan, the more you can minimize the likelihood of a dinner table tantrum.
To deal with unanticipated conversational risks, brush up on your media training. Blocking and bridging comes in particularly handy when encountering firmly held opinions coming across the dining table. Young professionals might try the following:
When I plan to settle down is a great question, but I think the real issue here Grandma, is when Ralph over there is going to finally give you that great grandchild you’ve always wanted.
Step four: Review.
Once the leftovers are in the fridge and all the dishes put away, take a moment to review how your strategy played out. What can you learn now that the potential crisis has passed? What techniques should you prepare for next time? It’s never too early to start planning for Thanksgiving 2018.