Eleventh and final part in a series about fundamental marketing documents every business needs. The tenth was: The marketing plan: Your treasure map to the gold.)
Most business owners dream of the day when reporters are knocking down their doors wanting to do stories about them. The problem is that this seldom happens anymore – unless you screw up.
Or somebody that works for you screws up. Or something bad happens through no fault of your own, such as a tornado blowing your roof off, killing Dorothy, Todo and the Tin Man.
Regardless, this is the kind of publicity you do not want. But it will come. Trust me on this.
You need to be ready for it. It’s call crisis communications. And no, you can’t make it all go away simply by saying, “no comment.” Unless you would like to flush your reputation down the drain. Buh-bye.
So what’cha going to do? You need a plan.
Listen. I’m not going to try to give you all the ins and outs of writing a plan in 600 words. It’s just too involved. There are three-day seminars that can’t even cover all that goes into it.
But what I hope to do is alert you to the fact that you 1) need one; and 2) give you some tips about what you should include in one; and 3) give you some resources for where to go next for either writing one yourself or getting help to write one.
Planning for your crisis communications plan
First, some things to know about plans:
- Believe the crisis will happen. Somewhere, somehow, somebody connected to your company or organization is GOING TO SCREW UP. There are just too many ways to do it for it not to happen. Regardless of how many policies and procedures you have in place. Regardless of how good a judge of character you think you are. Accept it and move on. That’s why you need a plan. And when it happens, admit it, take responsibility for it, and for Pete’s sake, don’t ever lie about it to the media. Own it, apologize for it (none of this mealy-mouthed stuff, either. Really apologize when you screw up. Don’t let your lawyers talk you out of this either. Do you want to lose in the court of public opinion?) Don’t let the media drag it out of you. They will find out about the details any way, and the longer it takes to come out, the longer it stays in the media. Let it all out the first day. It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid. It hurts terribly at first, but then the pain is gone.
- Make a list of your 10 worst possible crises and map out your responses to them. Think of your worst nightmares: your accountant embezzles from you while under-reporting your earnings to the IRS; a disgruntled employee holds the entire C-suite hostage while wired with explosives; you get sued by a customer because he gets injured by your product. There are many different types of crises: human error, clerical error, unauthorized procedures, inadequate supervision, inadequate quality control, misuse of confidential information, judgment errors, inadequate standard operating procedures, “acts of God,” and on and on.
- Write media policies and procedures. Decide who will handle media calls and develop procedures for how they will handle them. If more than one person will be handling calls, which may be necessary in a crisis, make sure that everyone is releasing the same information.
- Include fill-in-the-blank news release templates, media lists and other lists of people you need to communicate with during a crisis, such as police, board members and community groups. Include the home numbers and cell phone numbers of your team members. You will need everything ready to go at a moment’s notice. There’s no time to pull this stuff together once it hits the fan.
- Identify a crisis team. Make sure that everybody has a job description and everybody knows who does what. There should be only one person calling the shots. Make sure that person is media savvy. Usually that person is not the CEO.
- Develop key messages. These are not the same key messages that you may have developed for your business. These are key messages that pertain specifically for the crisis. They should, however, be consistent with your overall business key messages. You want to reassure your audiences that you are genuinely concerned about the problem, that you can be trusted and that you are correcting any deficits that have been revealed in the crisis. This is not the time to be defensive or haughty.
- Get media training for your key spokespeople. There’s an art to the interview, but it takes training and practice, just like most things.
- Practice tough questions. Don’t wing it. Have the answers ready. And don’t take tough questions personally. Reporters are just doing their jobs. Again – don’t lie to them. And for the love of Mike, don’t get mad at them! Keep your cool!
- Monitor the media – including social media. Use Google Alerts at a minimum, or invest in more sophisticated monitoring software. Your brand can be toast in 30 minutes if you don’t catch something trending on Twitter. You can’t wait for your response to be vetted by a committee – or the lawyers. Get it out there – fast!
- Run practice drills. Your team has to practice, just like the fire department or the Army. If you don’t do drills, I promise you, you won’t know where the holes are in your plan and it will fall short.
- Store your plan in the cloud. You will need it when you’re playing golf or you’re on vacation, or when terrorists have blown up your office — then what good will that three-ring binder do you? Make sure your team knows how to get to it.
- Read it every six months and update as needed.
Resources for your crisis communications plan
As for where to go to get help writing a plan:
- The PRSA website is a good resource for a variety articles on writing a crisis communications plan.
- The IABC website also is a good resource. One of the articles it features is “Crafting a Crisis Communications Plan,” by Gerard Braud, of New Orleans, Louisiana, a consultant who specializes in writing crisis communications plans. I have attended one of his workshops and found his work to be excellent.
- NewsPlace.org provides a crisis communications blueprint that is very good.
I hope I’ve convinced you to start thinking about your own crisis communications plan and to begin making some notes. Don’t wait until trouble comes calling before you turn it into a real plan. After all, you don’t want to be 60 Minutes next feature story, do you?