Silicon Valley has become synonymous with a rather distasteful piece of jargon: “disruption.”
While it’s certainly evocative of the tech industry’s habit of shaking up stable markets and producing perpetually fluid futures, it’s also descriptive of what locals expect from the very ground they walk on. Silicon Valley is earthquake country.
Everyone raised there is trained to immediately move away from windows, dive under desks or brace in doorways when the rolling starts. Californians all go about their business as if they didn’t live on a fault line—but they’re instinctively aware that “the big one” can hit at any moment. Everyone has an ingrained personal action plan (and an emergency kit) in place for when disaster strikes.
PR pros should take a similar approach to crisis communications.
Even if you don’t live along a tectonic plate edge, you know that some manner of disruptive disaster is always possible—and you should prepare accordingly.
A true company crisis is something that impedes an organization’s ability to conduct business. A crisis may be operational (your product malfunctions), but a crisis can also be reputational (a high-profile investor is named in a scandalous lawsuit).
Appropriately measured and responsive crisis communications are often key in mitigating damage, and having a plan in place saves time, money and your sanity.
Think of these pre-prepared missives as your communications emergency preparedness kit.
To stock that kit, you must first establish situational awareness within the organization. Identify crucial team members, assess essential information and develop communications templates and plausible action plans.
Who needs to make decisions? What is the process for quick action? What will determine resolution?
These three steps can help you get prepared:
1. Assemble the team.
Effective crisis communications hinge on activating the right team members.
Response team documentation should clearly identify decision makers and supply contact information, note approval hierarchies (and back-ups), and assign spokespeople (and back-ups).
A typical enterprise critical response team may be comprised of the entire c-suite (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO), as well as legal counsel, the HR lead, head of corporate communications and product and/or regional leaders, as appropriate.
It’s important to have back-ups. Remember you are planning for crisis, and it’s wise to assume some team members will be unreachable.
2. Appraise the response.
Communications audits are great preparation for crafting crisis plans.
Trust departmental instincts to identify the best knowledge base in key groups. Be sure to poll outside partners about their concerns in the event of a crisis and exchange emergency contact information.
Response time in a crisis can be crucial, so developing pre-drafted and pre-approved communication materials will give you a head start when you need it.
[ Free Download: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips.]
3. Plan for action.
Your course of action when dealing with a crisis event will address an issue spectrum (a list of between 6 and 20 areas where the company is potentially vulnerable). When developing an issue spectrum, always begin with the most likely and most potentially damaging.
For example, if you are a cybersecurity firm operating in Miami, your top two crises on the spectrum might be getting hacked and getting hit by a hurricane. Even something as simple as a pre-written online statement, such as “We’re aware of a problem and will keep everyone posted as we gather more information,” should be ready to launch.
More comprehensive action plans will include detailed messaging, an FAQ, holding statements, a press release or media alert draft, a landing page, customer/partner communications templates and sample social media posts for each issue on the spectrum.
A word of caution: Companies tend to focus heavily on obvious dangers and overlook important, but less conspicuous, potential crises. For example, commercial airlines have well-developed crisis playbooks for responding to a plane crash, but some carriers seemed ill-prepared to face customer service calamities.
A great way to ensure you aren’t neglecting to prepare for a solid issue spectrum is to analyze what has happened in the past to other companies—particularly competitors—and model how you’d respond in similar instances. While most organizations won’t need to engage in exercises as drastic as The New York Times’ recent crisis simulation, it is helpful for response teams to periodically engage in a little role-playing.
You can also monitor media coverage of how other organizations deal with a particular crisis, note things that help or hurt, and practice running through some scenarios.
No two companies are completely alike, but everyone can learn from others’ experiences. Successful crisis communications are measured by how quickly a company regains the ability to conduct “normal” business, hopefully emerging stronger and wiser.
To reduce the inevitable pain in that process, heed the words of Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Deirdre Blake is senior content manager for Silicon Valley public relations firm Sterling Communications . A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.