During the COVID-19 pandemic, your employees, clients, partners and other stakeholders are getting their messages from sources ranging from the CDC to Instagram. Writing in PropertyCasualty360, KHPR President Gary Kimball asks: shouldn’t some of that messaging come from you? He provides guidance on how business leaders can communicate with their audiences — read it here.
For businesses, there is a right and wrong way to communicate during a crisis as tragic and widespread as the COVID-19 pandemic. We all know the wrong approach when we see it — but how do we do the right thing? We hope our Communications Checklist points you in the right direction
(It’s free to download and we’re won’t make you sign up for anything — that link takes you directly to a PDF download.)
If you need further guidance during this trying time, please rest assured that our team is fully operational and ready to support you. Reach out at email@example.com for general inquiries, or connect with the Kimball Hughes PR team on LinkedIn.
A colleague recently shared an article published in The New Yorker in 2009 about how Kellogg responded to the Great Depression. In the 1920s, along with its main rival Post, the company dominated the then new packaged cereal market. The New Yorker summarized Kellogg’s reaction to the country’s economic collapse this way:
“Post did the predictable thing: it reined in expenses and cut back on advertising. But Kellogg doubled its ad budget, moved aggressively into radio advertising, and heavily pushed its new cereal, Rice Krispies. … By 1933, even as the economy cratered, Kellogg’s profits had risen almost thirty percent and it had become what it remains today: the industry’s dominant player.”
This is how just one company responded to a crisis nearly 100 years ago. But it does address a question many companies are facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic:
In the face of a temporary but significant economic downturn what do we do with our marketing and communications budgets?
As I write this, the stock market is reacting to the U.S. Labor Department announcement that unemployment benefit claims soared to 3.28 million last week. I’ll leave it to the marketing and advertising gurus to comment on their budgets, but I can speak to communications efforts that may be worthwhile to pursue in this environment, especially for B2B companies.
Some public relations efforts, such as product launches, events and location openings are being postponed or suspended because they aren’t relevant or would be lost in the pandemic news reports. Those are generally wise moves.
At the same time we are seeing a need for thought leadership from industry leaders who can write articles or blogs (what I’m doing here), produce videos and podcasts, and do anything to share valuable ideas and opinions with their audience. As long as these messages are relevant and well done, they can have an immediate and long-term impact to build and maintain awareness of a company and its expertise.
Ramping up social media efforts with the same type of messages is also a good idea. And not just because more people are working remotely, but also because it’s estimated that more of us are on social media during this crisis than usual. And this change, along with higher usage of mobile apps and other digital communication platforms, may very well be permanent changes in your workplace.
So, my advice to business leaders as you navigate the disruptions caused by COVID-19 and plan for the future is this: Think about what you have to say, develop a thought leadership plan for the short- and long-term, align it with your changing business plans, and start sharing those thoughts through multiple digital channels.
The results may not be as dramatic Kellogg’s in the 1930s, but building awareness of your expertise may serve you well when the dust settles and business growth resumes.
You don’t have to be a communications professional to cringe when you read certain emails and social media posts today. In the new COVID-19 world we find ourselves, it can be difficult for businesses to know what to say, when to say it and how often to say it to their clients and the public. Everyone wants to jump in with a message, look for revenue opportunities or offer helpful advice, but some do it better than others.
Below we offer common mistakes and some tips to avoid them.
4 Mistakes to Avoid When Communicating During a Crisis:
- Not adjusting scheduled social media posts in light of new circumstances. This should be an automatic step whether you’re facing a global pandemic or a crisis isolated to your business. Make sure you read them all, and then delete and edit them to be relevant and tasteful in the context of new circumstances.
- Going ahead with planned announcements without considering how they will be perceived. You may be excited about your latest opening or product launch, but such an announcement may be ignored or — worse — perceived as insensitive and opportunistic when you do it. Timing is everything.
- Being opportunistic. There is a difference between offering sincere help during difficult times and being perceived as trying to make an extra buck when others are suffering. It’s all about perceptions.
- Pitching related stories to the media that are just in very bad taste and opportunistic. Just take a look at this piece by Mashable to see PR people at their worst. PR pros should be able to know when they have an expert who can make a real contribution to a conversation and when it’s just a bad idea.
5 Things to Consider When Messaging:
How do you know whether your message will be well received or will make you appear careless and opportunistic?
- Put it in perspective. COVID-19, for example, is a global pandemic with unprecedented and tragic consequences. People are dying and more will die. Many more will lose their jobs, businesses will suffer and many will face economic and personal hardship. Most of us are scared and worried. Think about this when messaging and make sure your messages are in touch with the current reality.
- Make sure it’s relevant. In the context of the above, what is relevant? For example, this blog is being written to help prevent businesses from making mistakes when communicating during the current and future crises. That seems relevant to our audience and a way we can help.
- Does it address what your audience’s needs. Ask yourself if you’re tooting your own horn, going through the motions or really addressing what your clients, employees and partners need to know. Sometimes, as in the current environment when our mailboxes are full of COVID-19 messages, what your audience needs is a message as simple as “We’re here for you.”
- What are others doing? You don’t want to follow the crowd necessarily, but seeing what others in your industry are doing can help guide your decisions about what to do or what not to do.
- Test it. There no time for focus groups, but try running your message by a long-time partner or client who you trust and get their reaction.
For businesses, a compassionate and savvy response to the COVID-19 pandemic involves transparent, accurate and realistic communications. This serves to protect not only employees’ and customers’ health, but also a business’s reputations. In PropertyCasualty360, our VP Rod Hughes offers guidance on reputation and crisis communications for insurance professionals and all B2B professionals.
In recognition of Insurance Careers Month, we sat down with Alyssa Bouchard, director of education & programming for Gamma Iota Sigma, the premier collegiate talent pipeline for the insurance industry, to talk about the state of insurance talent and its future.
Alyssa Bouchard, CPCU, ASLI, ARM
Director, Education & Programming, Gamma Iota Sigma
- There’s been a lot of discussion around the looming talent gap in insurance. What are risk management programs, or the industry more broadly, doing to attract talent to insurance careers?
The industry is rallying to preempt the talent gap and strengthen the insurance brand through initiatives like the Insurance Careers Movement and Gamma Iota Sigma’s One Campus at a Time, an initiative conceived to expand and diversify the insurance industry’s talent pipeline and funded by Lead Partners Chubb and the Spencer Educational Foundation. Core programs are Boots on the Ground Month, a call to action for professionals to go “back to school” and share their career stories with students each October and the Security in Risk Tour in partnership with Insurance Information Institute, in which we visit non-GIS, non-RMI/ActSci schools to raise awareness of insurance careers. Both allow us to showcase the industry’s vibrance, its career paths and opportunities, and its potential for the future to students from a variety of majors who might never have thought about insurance as a career before. The talent conversation is not just one for HR. Every insurance professional, from every functional area of the industry, is equipped to shape the industry’s pipeline and future.
- How has insurance changed in the past five or six years in ways that are impacting what today’s risk management students are now learning in the classroom?
Risk management and insurance curriculum is evolving with the industry. Cassandra Cole, adviser for Florida State University’s Gamma Iota Sigma chapter and Gary Sullivan, adviser for the GIS chapter at Mercyhurst University, recently addressed collegiate insurance curriculum changes in a Property Casualty 360 article; data analytics and cybersecurity are just some of the new focus areas. Zachary Finn, GIS adviser at Butler University, is making the connection between the classroom and real-world experiences by providing hands-on opportunities for students to design a captive and work through real-life scenarios.
- We are told technology has opened up new career opportunities for tomorrow’s insurance professionals. What are some of the newer roles today’s risk management students aspire to within the insurance industry following graduation?
The data science field is taking off as insurance companies work to analyze a wealth of growing data and use it to make better business decisions. We’re seeing new technologies like drones, blockchain, and telematics impact roles across the industry in risk management, underwriting, claims, and more. A good example of this is claims adjusters who fly drones to survey damages. It is important for students to understand how technology is impacting insurance career paths and opportunities.
- Can you offer examples of how the insurance industry is responding to millennial and Gen Z workplace styles and sensibilities?
I imagine when some people think of Gen Zs and millennials running the workplace, they envision either foosball tables and free snacks or a 100% virtual workplace. But Gamma Iota Sigma’s Annual Recruiting Survey results show workplace perks and work-from-home capabilities take a back seat to factors like future growth, compensation, culture, training, and development when it comes to influencers in student’s employment decisions. Millennial and Gen Z generations want much the same thing as older generations: a fulfilling, growth-oriented, and stable career. The insurance industry offers all those things, and through collaborative initiatives, training programs, mentorship and more, is working to showcase its breadth of opportunity.
- Would you share some insights on career opportunities within insurance for those coming from different industries? In other words, are their specific skills or adjacent industries (i.e., accounting) that lend themselves to those seeking to transition into the insurance profession?
The insurance industry is for everyone. Any background. Any major. Seriously! I have a friend who majored in Art History and Museum Studies. She is now a fine art underwriter. The industry is hiring for roles across all functional areas – Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Actuarial, Brokerage, etc. Our GammaSAID Council equips GIS members to be inclusive and intentional in their outreach to engage students of all majors for Gamma Iota Sigma. In fact, the fastest growing segment among our membership of 5,000+ students is about 27% who report their major as something other than Risk Management & Insurance or Actuarial Science. Our message of insurance careers is resonating with a diverse pool of talent.
- Can you share any statistics or numbers that help to quantify career opportunities in the field of insurance that tomorrow’s professionals should consider when deciding on a career path?
There are many shocking statistics out there about our industry’s need for talent – namely that 41% of students and recent grads change their path due to some form of exposure, whether faculty, industry speaker, peer, or some form of GIS programming. This flings open the doors of opportunity! The bottom line is, insurance career prospects are abundant, and we have tremendous variety in career paths and specialties. It is a great time to pursue a career in insurance.
Alyssa is Director of Education & Programming for Gamma Iota Sigma, the premier collegiate talent pipeline for the insurance industry, where she collaborates with industry, association, and university partners to engage and equip the next generation of insurance leaders. Alyssa is an alumnus of the Rho Chapter of Gamma Iota Sigma and holds her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Risk Management and Insurance from Appalachian State University.
For a few hours on March 30, 1981, chaos overcame the U.S. federal government.
Ronald Reagan, just three months into his presidency, was struck by a would-be assassin’s bullet. As media worked to rapidly cover fast moving events, the Fourth Estate found a young administration ill-prepared for the circumstances of the moment. Absent a clear crisis communications plan, and with the president in surgery, the vice president on a plane being returned to Washington, D.C., and the district largely locked down following the shooting just blocks from the White House, Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously stepped to the White House podium and, unscripted, told reporters asking who was in charge: “As of now, I’m in control here at the White House.” Haig was constitutionally inaccurate while at the same time functionally correct. However, his ill-considered wording set off a flurry of speculation about the severity of the president’s health and contributed, temporarily, to exacerbate a national crisis.
Into the storm
Whether you have news vans swarming your office, incessant phone and email inquiries from eager reporters or angry customers (and sometimes employees; and sometimes all three at once) inundating you with demands for answers, the evidence of a full-blown crisis situation involving you or your business becomes hard to ignore once the word is out.
I’ve stood next to, and sometimes in front of, countless business leaders facing all of the above scenarios (save the Reagan assassination attempt). What I can tell you is these crisis situations are jarring experiences for even the most seasoned business leaders.
In my recent series of articles on crisis communications, I’ve noted there are four essential stages of a crisis: discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis. Here I’ll talk about the most challenging stage: managing the crisis.
Who is in charge here?
Once the underlying issues are front and center for your audience(s), you will quickly find yourself in full-fledged crisis management mode. There is a lot to do, and never enough time to do it.
And if I haven’t beat this drum enough in other articles on this topic, let me again note that this stage is significantly less horrifying if you already have a crisis communications plan in place.
Assuming you do not have a crisis communications plan in place and have not had a lot of lead time to prepare for this crisis scenario, there are several things you will need to do all at once after related details have made it into the wider world. The first is to establish a chain of command.
Often, in a crisis, the CEO may not be the best person to lead the crisis response. He or she may have other mission critical responsibilities or may serve as the spokesperson in some situations. What you’ll need is a small but empowered group to keep the assessment and response process moving. Every organization will approach this differently, but legal counsel and your public relations representative are essential members of this team.
What’s going on?
Next you need to quickly, but accurately ascertain the facts of the situation. Gather as much verifiable information on the situation as possible. This includes speaking to those involved, reviewing any related documentation, and in many cases trying to establish a timeline of events. In fast moving situations, you typically have about 15 to 30 minutes to do so.
While you’re gathering the facts, you’ll also need to prepare a holding statement to respond to inquiring media, as well as for use on your brand’s social media channels. You may also need a slight variation on your holding statement for internal audiences (e.g., employees, managers, vendors, boards of directors, investors, etc.).
Once you’ve compiled your facts, you need to more fully respond to the media beyond your holding statement. Attorneys will advise most business leaders to say little or nothing at all. They are thinking about potential litigation issues, and rightly so. However, as we advise clients facing crisis situations, there is the court of law and the court of public opinion. One of those allows you many appeals. The other, just one.
During any crisis, your legal team and your public relations professionals should work together to determine what can be included in a statement that still addresses any legal concerns. There is always something you can say. Under no circumstances should a business ever issue a “no comment” to a crisis situation. The negative publicity a “no comment” generates can be substantial.
What can we say?
Every good crisis statement should follow another simple formula:
• Acknowledge the situation
• Tell the truth
• Tell what you know/lay out the facts as you have them
• Don’t speculate on what you don’t know
• Highlight any immediate, corrective action the business is taking to address the current issue
• Reference, if possible, what steps you will take to ensure such a situation cannot happen in the future
You also have to decide if your statement will be written or delivered by a spokesperson. If it is written, how will it be delivered? If it’s meant to be read, who will read it? Has that person been media trained? Will they take questions? What will they do if they get a question for which they are unprepared?
Throughout all of the above activity, you also need to ensure your organization is speaking with one voice as well as directing inquiries to the right personnel.
Who is handling customer calls or complaints? Do they have instructions on how to reply to certain issues? What if reporters start dialing your phone tree randomly? Does everyone in the company know what to say and to whom they should direct any random media inquiries? What’s been told to the employees, board members, investors and other staff? What about vendors? Has anyone reached out to them? Who is monitoring your social media? And has that person made sure to cancel any scheduled social content that has the potential to worsen the current crisis situation?
Who is talking about us?
From the outset, you need to begin monitoring what is being said about your company. On social media, in the press, by employees, etc. Your response to any crisis can define the situation in many cases. How the public at large reacts to your statement, what they say online and off, will shape all that comes after for your business. This is precisely why a crisis communications plan is critical. No company that wants to remain in business should be “making it up as they go” while trying to save that business during a crisis. How a statement is received, how it is believed, and how it is shared plays an outsized role in any crisis situation.
To monitor effectively, companies in crisis should use monitoring tools for online media as well as social channels. Google Alerts are a simple, free tool. A range of social media dashboards can help ascertain what is being discussed about your business, which is often not on your business’s social media channels. Your communications team or outside public relations agency should be able to provide other professional monitoring tools to assist with keeping an eye on timely press coverage and social channels.
Talk to employees. Get feedback from managers. Contact your most trusted vendors and ask what they are hearing. It’s also possible, through this monitoring process, that your business may have to issue future statements or updates to the press and others to best manage the situation.
When will we know more?
Crisis events can be brief or linger for weeks. They can also come roaring back into the spotlight months and even years later if managed poorly during the original event. Each crisis has a life of its own, and each is subject to the nature of the situation, time and circumstance. No one should assume a crisis facing their business will only last a single news cycle.
With all things related to business crisis situations, my advice is always to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
In my final note on this series about the four stages of any crisis, I’ll detail what must be done when the crisis ultimately subsides. I’ll talk about how to gather lessons learned to both better the organization and how to begin the hard work of repairing any reputation damage the business and its leadership team might have suffered.
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” – Thomas Paine
As far back as the late 1700s, even Thomas Paine knew that “shrinking from service” during a crisis was a bad idea. That sentiment remains true today.
In my most recent article, “The Biggest Mistake Businesses in Crisis Make,” I noted the mistake in question was not realizing when one is already in a crisis. I also noted the four primary phases of any crisis: discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis. Here I will explore the second phase, disclosure of the crisis.
Stage Two: Houston, We Have a Problem
The disclosure of a crisis can take many forms. The worst is when businesses learn of the situation via the news media. More often, however, it is the business itself that identifies and discloses the crisis by recognizing a problem exists and pulling in the leadership team to debrief and consider options.
The decisions made by leadership during this discovery phase determine whether the situation will be truly negative or if a positive outcome might result for the business. The best-case scenario is for businesses to already have a crisis communications plan. Management must also be willing to address the issue at hand as well make meaningful changes to better the situation for the business as well as its clients or customers. In such situations, there is potential for the business to emerge with its reputation not only intact but possibly improved by demonstrating its responsiveness and sincere effort to make needed course corrections.
However, as Mr. Paine alluded, those who shrink from the responsibilities of meeting a crisis head-on only add to the damage. One need only consider Toyota’s 2010 recall debacle and the company’s initial, repeated denials of any vehicle defects to recognize that failure to take ownership of a crisis situation and create a corrective action plan can do serious damage to a business’ reputation.
As I’ve noted repeatedly, businesses are best protected when they already have a crisis communications plan in place. However, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, business leaders must prepare for a crisis by creating a plan either immediately before a storm or in the eye of one.
In such situations, we recommend business leaders, upon discovering the problem, take the following steps promptly:
- Quickly and thoroughly assess the facts of the situation and its practical impact on the business/customers/employees
- Begin planning what steps must be taken immediately, as you also look at long-term strategies to remedy the situation for all parties involved
- With your crisis communications team and attorney, create a small crisis response team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities
- If you don’t have media response and social media protocols, create them
- Craft a response strategy and related messaging that will help ensure your side of the story is made simply and clearly
- If possible, prepare by testing your strategy and responses through simulations with your crisis team
- Consider all your audiences, including your employees, when you craft your messaging and strategy, and tailor the tone and style of each message to each audience — while making sure you are consistent with facts
- Don’t lie, don’t speculate and be sure to put your emotions aside as you prepare to manage the crisis
What is key to remember is the steps listed above must happen in near synchronicity, and they must happen quickly. Depending on the situation, businesses might be faced with a crisis in the public eye with little or no warning. I’ve seen crisis situations emerge where businesses get a day or two of warning before news goes public. However, I’ve also gotten phone calls from C-suite executives who received phone calls from reporters seeking comment on situations these executives were completely unaware of, with only minutes before publication or broadcast of the story.
If you believe the reputation of your business is important, you need to know what steps to take and how to communicate effectively to help protect that reputation.
Lack of planning, poor communication and disorganization in response to a crisis situation can lead to a “bet the business” risk responsible business leaders don’t need to take. Following the steps above when a significant problem arises can help your business weather a crisis.
In my next article, I’ll discuss managing crisis situations, including what to look for, how to respond and how best to manage both the crisis and yourself as you attempt to shape the resulting impact.
The biggest mistake business and other organization leaders make during a crisis is not knowing they are already in a crisis. It sounds odd, but it can be alarmingly easy to miss the early stages of an unfolding crisis and devastating for those caught unprepared.
As I have written previously, expertise in managing crisis communications is essential. So too is having a well-considered plan.
Too many business leaders believe a crisis doesn’t start until the excrement hits the oscillating unit; in other words, when the situation is discovered by shareholders, customers, the media, the public at large and so forth. And while news spreads fast, bad news travels 10 times as fast thanks to the eternal 24-hour news cycle and omnipresent social media.
A Test for Crises
It’s not complicated to determine if your business or organization is in crisis. If you answer yes to two or more of the following questions, your crisis has already begun whether you realize it or not:
- If I do nothing, could this situation get worse?
- Will the business or its leadership be viewed negatively if word gets out?
- Does any aspect of this situation have the potential to attract media attention?
- Could news of this situation hurt or hinder normal operation of the business?
Once you determine you have a crisis situation on your hands, it’s important to know every crisis, regardless of its origin or complexity, follows a cycle. Different crisis communications firms have different ways of classifying the stages of a crisis. For me, the essential stages of any crisis include: Discovering the crisis, disclosure of the crisis, managing the crisis and completion of the crisis.
Stage One: Uh-oh
The first stage is when someone realizes there might be cause for concern. Using the four questions above, this is when an individual or group of individuals begins to recognize the organization has a problem.
This is also the stage where, if you have a crisis communications plan already in place, you can best prepare your team to weather the crisis and mitigate damage. Absent a plan, organizations need to engage experienced crisis communications professionals as soon as possible. Even a few hours or days to prepare with the business’ leadership team can make a significant difference in any outcomes.
However, too often, business leaders believe this early stage doesn’t yet signal an actual crisis that requires action. I’ve heard a range of rationalizations for hesitating: Maybe it will go away; no one knows yet; there’s still time to figure it out; I don’t want to spend money dealing with something that might not happen; we’ll deal with it when and if something happens; etc.
Valuable time is wasted by not acting quickly at this early stage. What many business leaders fail to realize is even if the situation doesn’t come to light immediately, that doesn’t mean it won’t pop up at some undefined point in the future. And sometimes that delayed revelation adds to the damage because then it is clear that leadership knew something was wrong and failed to act. Also, by working to address the urgent issue at hand, businesses without a crisis plan in place are laying the foundation for handling future crisis situations. As they tackle the issue of the moment, they are essentially making it more manageable and, sometimes, more affordable to later build a long-term crisis communications plan.
Waiting until the situation is disclosed (by forces either within or outside of the business) puts your organization at maximum risk. At that point, any crisis communications professional you engage can only help business leaders ride the wave. The opportunity to define the narrative, to mitigate some of the damage, has passed. Once disclosure of the situation occurs, absent some form of a plan, most businesses risk being defined completely by the crisis rather than defining how it addressed the crisis and how it plans to resolve it.
The best advice is this: If you use the litmus test provided here and find your business or organization is at risk, recognize you are already in a crisis. Don’t wait until that situation causes irrevocable harm to your business or its reputation. Act quickly.
Being as proactive as possible will help ensure you can weather the crisis at hand, and possibly provide the beginnings of a plan to avoid or at least better manage another crisis in the future. Like insurance, spending money to prepare a crisis communications plan is never wasted. Absent insurance – in this case, a crisis communications plan – the costs are far higher.
In my next post I’ll talk about the disclosure stage of a crisis and what that sometimes looks like. Meanwhile, if you have questions or believe the time for your business or non-profit to prepare for a crisis is now, please contact our office at (610) 559-7585 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If your house were on fire, you wouldn’t ask your neighbor for his garden hose. You’d want the fire department.
The same idea is true when you find your business in crisis. You wouldn’t call just anyone. You would call someone with extensive experience managing crisis scenarios.
Why? Because a crisis is like a fire. It starts small and grows quickly. Those with the right expertise will put the fire out while assessing the cause and the damage to help ensure it can’t happen again.
If your house were on fire, you would call 911. But who do you call when your organization is in crisis? Selecting crisis communications experts requires planning and realistic expectations.
Start with a Plan
The first step to mitigating a crisis is to have a plan. Hire a crisis communications firm (usually a public relations agency with deep crisis communications expertise) to assess your organization, identify crisis risk factors and create a response plan. Decide whether you would like a plan you can execute using in-house resources or if you would like to empower the communications firm to lead for you during a crisis. The best approach is to always have an outside, unbiased third party lead the assessment and plan creation, working closely with your management. Your in-house team may have blind-spots or biases that cause critical factors to be overlooked.
The value of a plan can’t be overstated. Nearly everyone has participated in a fire drill at least once in their lives. Local fire departments are always advocating for families to make evacuation plans from their homes in case of fire. Knowing how to escape and who to call can make coping with a fire more manageable while, hopefully, reducing the risk to lives and property.
At a minimum, prudent organizational leaders should identify and interview qualified crisis communications firms they can call should a crisis emerge. After all, you wouldn’t want to start interviewing fire fighters as your house burns. This goes for crisis communications teams as well.
Don’t Expect It to Be Cheap
Crisis communications work is not inexpensive. With no plan to follow, those costs only rise.
Remember, you are seeking expertise that public relations agencies don’t always offer. Just as a local, volunteer fire fighter is not inherently qualified to fight massive forest fires, not all PR agencies have the capacity or expertise for crisis communications. In those cases, the Forest Service calls on specialized crews with specialized training and tools—just as you will call on crisis communications experts.
These experienced crisis communicators do a rapid assessment of your actual situation, not just what you believe it to be. This includes identifying the players, looking at your organization’s public history, reviewing media coverage, identifying your internal resources and coordinating with your legal team. They then use their experience and insight to develop a plan to ensure your side of the story is heard clearly by all audiences.
When hired, your crisis communications team commits to being available to you 24/7 until a clear resolution is achieved. Depending on the crisis, that time commitment can be substantial.
This is why reputable crisis firms require an upfront retainer to begin any crisis work, and these retainer rates vary widely.
Rather than asking what that retainer can “get you,” what clients need to consider is how the retainer will be applied. What work will those up-front dollars allow a crisis team to begin on your behalf? Who will populate your crisis team? And what initial steps need to be taken to tamp down any dangerous embers that might spark a bigger fire?
When hiring a crisis team, you are not purchasing a defined set of tactics (i.e., three press releases and a one hour consult). Rather, you are engaging a firm’s time, reputation and established expertise to help guide you through a crisis situation. And as circumstances evolve and change, you’ll have an experienced team helping you navigate the situation as best possible.
Recognize You Must Act Quickly
Some crises you see coming: A pending legal matter. Terminating a disgruntled employee who is likely to cause trouble. Others, just like fires, begin and spread so quickly you don’t realize what happened until it’s over.
Organizational leaders should act quickly when a crisis emerges. What might at first seem trivial can quickly spiral out of control. The faster you move to bring in experts to assess and address a situation, the better prepared you will be if what appears to be a minor situation ends up having major implications.
A recent national news event in my backyard of Philadelphia is a perfect example of underestimating a crisis. What started as an apparent loitering dispute at a downtown Starbucks—in less than 24 hours—turned into a series of street protests and a prolonged national media storm. It has become a PR nightmare for both Starbucks and the Philadelphia Police Department, both media-savvy organizations. Both have experience at the center of crisis situations within the glare of the media spotlight. Yet neither saw the crisis coming until it was already dominating headlines.
Creating a crisis communications plan can help you identify risks you didn’t realize you had, and might even help you avoid a future crisis. Not having a crisis plan is the surest way for any organization to guarantee a very expensive crisis when one emerges.
However, even with a plan, you still need a skilled communications team to help. Experienced PR crisis professionals won’t “spin” or lie or cover up. Rather, they will help ensure your organization speaks with one voice and that your side of the situation is related clearly and honestly. This also means you’ll need a plan for what comes after.
A good crisis team cannot remove all potential damage. Sometimes the crisis team isn’t called in until after headlines and news alerts have already blared. Being realistic also means recognizing that after a crisis, there will be clean up work needed to begin to repair the damage that has been done. This doesn’t happen quickly, and certainly not without a plan.
Helping to save reputations, jobs—sometimes the organization itself—isn’t easy, isn’t for amateurs and isn’t cheap. We know because, since our agency’s founding in 1995, crisis communications work has been a hallmark of Kimball Hughes Public Relation’s services. I’ve personally been involved in crisis communications planning and response efforts for nearly 15 years. Our agency president, Gary Kimball, has been leading crisis communications matters since before our company was founded, going back to his corporate communications days in the late 1980s.
Done well, crisis communications can make all the difference and help organizations ultimately get back to their missions.