Crisis communications planning is all about anticipating the things that keep you awake in the middle of the night. Like the lifeboats on a cruise ship, it’s a tool you may hope you never have to use – but one that can salvage your organization in the toughest of situations.
An unexpected public relations crisis can strike even the best-managed businesses, large or small. These can be recalls of dangerous or contaminated products, a civil product liability lawsuit, or some other unforeseen disaster that may hurt sales, the bottom line, and/or reflect badly on a company’s image.
Your best bet in these instances is to defuse problems and resolve them favorably with an honest, vigorous damage control effort that converts the public into allies and paves the foundation for rebuilding the public perception of your brand. A Crisis Communications Plan lies at the core of such a public relations effort. Stiefel Creative can help you weather the storm.
The crisis communications planning process involves multiple steps:
Step One: The Assessment
Stiefel Creative reviews your existing strategic plans and ask excellent questions so no stone goes uncovered. This includes consulting your leadership team, determining your protocols, consulting your legal counsel, and establishing a clear chain of responsibilities so you can react swiftly to a wide variety of situations affecting your organization’s reputation and impacts on public health, if any. As outsiders getting a fresh perspective, we see things that you may be too close to notice in your daily processes.
Remember that a crisis can consist of more than just human error or some type of scandal. Natural disasters, computer hacks, phishing attacks, and mass shootings are just some of the things that can thrust your business into crisis mode.
A comprehensive crisis communications plan should include a section on Business Continuity so stakeholders know any arrangements and contingencies prepared to ensure the continuous delivery of critical services and products, which permits the organization to recover its facility, data and assets.
Step Two: Drafting the Document
We put the assembled information into a printed form that is easily digestible on a moment’s notice so order can be brought to chaos and guide your team, so they avoid causing additional harm during an already bad situation. Quick reference tabs and appendixes put directions at their fingertips. We also arrange for a copy of your strategic plan to be accessible from multiple locations, including off-site and encrypted in cloud storage. It is your blueprint for surviving a catastophe.
Step Three: Consulting
When and if you need to refer to your strategic plan, Stiefel Creative offers in-the-moment consulting so you have an additional resource for responding promptly to crisis situations. We use our years of experience as professional journalists to guide you through the process of coordinating and distributing information to the media sources that help to get your message out to affected stakeholders.
Assessing Every Possible Angle for a 360-Degree View of Risks
“I don’t think that anybody could have predicted that these people would try to use an airplane as a missile.”
– Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a Press conference, May 16, 2002.
Comments like these can be embarrassing, especially when plane hijackings and suicide bombers are already a known threat.
Particularly so when the CIA sent the boss a daily brief 36 days before the September 11 attacks with the headline “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” specifically noting “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for a hijacking” of US aircraft.
While the ashes were still stirring at Ground Zero, the administration of George W. Bush faced difficult questions from the news media and their political opponents about how they could have dropped the ball despite clear warnings of what was likely to happen.
The situation illustrates key points about crisis communications planning.
First, the nation’s leadership faced deep criticism for failing to properly address the concerns raised by the classified information on national security collected by various U.S. intelligence agencies. Agencies tasked with protecting the public also failed to share what they knew with one another. Similar mistakes led to the explosion of the Shuttle Challenger, with failures to communicate dangers and heed suggestions.
Ideally, such problems are detected while they are merely potential possibilities. If and when bad things happen, organizations aren’t left looking the way Sec. Rice did at that press conference, essentially reacting with “Oops, our bad.”
Sometimes you are left with no choice but to admit mistakes, apologize and demonstrate that it won’t happen again.
To regain the public trust, the Administration was forced to compensate by leaving absolutely no margin for error when it came to national security. If at first, you don’t succeed…
In much the same way that the 9/11 terrorist attacks dramatically changed America, so many hazards can pose an existential threat to organizations at every level. Human lives may be at stake.
The Bush Administration’s failure to plan for post-war Iraq, react to Hurricane Katrina and present solutions to the collapse of the economy during the subprime mortgage crisis are further examples of how poor strategic planning can lead to devastating outcomes.
I don’t want to pick on Bush alone but these are not partisan episodes. Bad things simply happen.
Democrat Jimmy Carter experienced similar credibility issues during the energy crisis and the taking of American hostages during the Iranian revolution. Obama’s approval rating could have faced a catastrophic hit if the raid on Bin Laden’s compound failed to kill or capture the Al Qaeda leader, just as a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Tehran contributed to Carter’s electoral defeat.
In the Absence of Timely Information, Speculation and Misinformation Grows
Reacting quickly with complete information is absolutely vital. You play a dangerous game when you leave it up to journalists or investigators to fill in the blanks.
Even if you not legally at fault, handling a crisis poorly can cost your brand dearly. Crisis communications planning is about turning negative situations into cases where trust grows.
It’s NOT about deceiving the public. Quite the opposite really. Even if you’re a good corporate citizen with benevolent intentions, you can accidentally open a can of worms if forced to come up with a response off the top of your head when a situation is chaotic and you’re facing tough questions from every direction.
When putting plans and policies in writing, it is equally important what you DON’T say. Words can come back to haunt you or complicate matters when calls for accountability arise.
For example, look at the Project for the New American Century, a foreign policy think-tank effort to articulate and promote American global leadership. Among those contributing to the effort were Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and 7 others who would go on to serve in the Bush Administration. The effort intended to equip Republican leaders with an effective critique of then-President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy record, but PNAC ended up seeding conspiracy theories.
Written before the September 11 attacks, one sentence raised considerable controversy: “the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.“
The sentence gave birth to assertions that the US government had, at minimum, used the terrorist attack as an opportunity to capitalize on long-desired plans to seize oil in the Middle East.
Some even suggested that Cheney and Company had orchestrated a massive hoax against thousands of innocent Americans in order to grab power and increase military spending by stoking fears in a period where the Soviet Union was no longer a threat to justify Pentagon budgets or unify Americans against a common foe.
The last thing an organization wants is to say or do anything that leaves room for speculation that IT is the problem or unconcerned whether it creates problems for others.
That goes for the chemical company that aims to be profitable while creating products that improve lives yet finds itself addressing criticisms of how it secures volatile substances. Or the chain or restaurants facing a lawsuit claiming it discriminates against people of color. Or the bank under investigation from regulators. Or any number of other undesirable situations in which organizations can and will find themselves.
A key benefit of crisis communications planning is being able to show that your group was neither corrupt nor incompetent — demonstrating how you did due diligence and took steps to mitigate undesirable outcomes for stakeholders across the spectrum.
To borrow an idiom, how will it look if you are “caught with your pants down”?
Will you be surprised in an embarrassing or guilty posture?
Or will you improve confidence in your ability to lead by the poised way you handle problems that do arise?
Gain Greater Peace of Mind
If you want to learn more about crisis communications planning, let’s schedule a time to chat about starting your organization’s confidential risk assessment.
Blog 2019 Steven Stiefel | Stiefel Creative