Why Lack of a Crisis Communications Plan Should Terrify You

Crises come in many forms.

They could present as one (or more) negative online reviews of your business. Others manifest through the court system in the guise of lawsuits or other law enforcement actions involving executives, employees or clients/customers. Customer complaints, employee disputes or soured relations with the local community or other stakeholders can constitute critical crises situations. Still others might involve negative press coverage or complaints on social media. The worst crises involve issues of life and death.

In Crisis, You’re Surrounded. Sometimes Literally.

Try to imagine having your workplace or for senior leadership, your home, surrounded by numerous news vans for hours or even days; harassing your workers, customers, and neighbors relentlessly to secure comments about whatever negative issue has befallen your organization. Now try to imagine keeping to a business-as-usual schedule as the world puts you under an intense microscope.

You don’t have to be a crisis expert to recognize when your organization is mired in one. In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described how he determined if something was obscene by famously saying, “I know it when I see it.” The same standard applies for leaders in determining if a crisis exists and how seriously it threatens the organization.

In more than 15 years of crisis communications management, I’ve seen all the above scenarios and quite a few more. Most of the organizations involved were wholly unprepared and found themselves, at best, struggling to manage.

Yes, they had lawyers. In nearly every case, the lawyers were excellent. But lawyers concern themselves with minimizing liability; their concern is rarely public opinion. And public opinion, frankly, will make or break a business’s bottom line or crush a non-profit’s fundraising capabilities, not to mention create reputational damage that can linger for years.

The Scariest Role Playing Ever

I like to pose the following to senior leaders, and while some may find these scenarios alarmist or extreme, they happened. My colleagues and I have managed them. Nearly every case was a bet-the-business situation and in each, the client lacked a crisis plan. This meant the best that could be done was to try to get their version of events out in front.

Imagine getting a text message or email that briefly outlines one of the following scenarios:

  • Your CFO has been arrested, is in custody and there will be a mug shot and perp walk in front of waiting press outside the police or district attorney’s office within the hour.
  • One of your workers has been killed on the job, either in a work-related accident or active shooter incident, and numerous local and national media are asking for a statement immediately.
  • Your CEO has been unexpectedly terminated or has died. The press are seeking an interview with whomever will take over, and the board of directors has called an emergency meeting expecting you to lay out how you will manage this situation.
  • Protesters have surrounded your business with signs and megaphones that are paralyzing your operations and drawing the attention of media regarding alleged poor worker conditions, or health code violations or claims that non-union labor was employed in a recent or ongoing renovation.
  • One of your leading donors has been arrested on charges of financial fraud and the media are reaching out asking if you will return the substantial funds provided to help compensate the donor’s alleged victims.
  • You have been accused of sexual harassment, law enforcement are at your door or on their way to interview you and the press have learned of this and are surrounding your workplace or home right now.

If you were involved in any of the above scenarios and you looked out your window, you would likely see a parade of news vans pulling up while your cell phone and email exploded with all manner of stakeholders asking questions. What would you do in the first 5 minutes? The first 10 minutes? The first hour? Most importantly, what would your plan be to manage the situation?

Calling the lawyers is a given, but they won’t manage the press.

Dozens of Questions at Once

What’s the process one follows to draft a statement the lawyers can live with that will also help the organization to try to stop the bleeding? Who will write that statement? How will they vet it? Does someone from the organization read the statement to the press? Is it emailed? What if the press keep asking questions? Do you do an interview, and if so, with which outlet? What are the pros and cons of doing an interview? Is the person to be interviewed media trained? Who is in charge of ongoing messaging? Who has to sign off on the messaging?

So many questions will emerge. Unfortunately, answers will be needed for most of those questions within the first hour or two. Otherwise, the situation can easily devolve to the point where it becomes nearly impossible to manage all the moving pieces.

Now, is every situation so extreme? No. A few bad reviews of your restaurant won’t prompt a media blitz. But, you’d better have a timely plan to message to your existing and prospective customers before reservations start canceling. However, every crisis scenario — from minor to major — requires timely communications, and that’s a challenge at best when there’s no plan and each passing hour might be damaging the organization.

If what I’ve shared raised an eyebrow or you actually tried to answer some of the above and struggled to clearly answer my questions even a little, then you are not prepared for a crisis. And you absolutely need to be.

Start By Asking for Help

Crisis communications planning, like life insurance, is something no one really wants to use. But to protect the people and things you care about you need both.

If you’re curious about what you might need in a crisis communications plan or what the process might look like for your organization to create one, get in touch with me.

Our agency offers free crisis communications planning consultation — which, of course, is different from crisis communications management. We do that too.  But if you’re planning for 2023 and beyond for your organization, consider putting the development of a crisis communications plan at the top of your priority list. Because when a crisis comes, and one will, not only will you know it when you see it, you’ll wish you had a robust and tested plan to address it.

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