PRSA Richmond’s Crisis Planning and Communications professional development session began – how else? – with a crisis. The session’s scheduled presenter, Padilla Owner Brian Ellis, was called away to help handle an unexpected client development, so in stepped Mike Mulvihill, Padilla’s executive VP, to help us explore the unpredictable world of crisis communications.
The New Media Landscape
We began by discussing the evolution of media and consumption. The past 20 years have been marked by a distinct shift towards a digital news landscape. Today, more news is being consumed online, and is often first reported by non-journalist citizens. On Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites heavily featuring user-generated content, anyone with a phone (and, by extension, a camera) can provide a first-hand account of breaking news. Citizen journalism is the new norm, and it is altering how organizations react in a crisis.
Now more than ever, speed is vital when a crisis arises. Mike described the media as a constantly eating beast and, with social media and new live technologies, an organization may be in the beast’s mouth before all the members of that organization are aware a crisis has occurred. An effective response is built on preparedness. Mike and Padilla recommend doing the following before a crisis breaks out:
Anticipate threats: Murphy’s Law dictates, roughly, that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. While your organization does not need to be as pessimistic as Murphy, highlighting your key vulnerabilities puts you in front of future crises. The owner of a pipeline needs to be prepared for that pipeline to leak. Chemical companies need to prepare for spills. Data storage providers should be prepared for their sensitive information to be hacked. Hopefully your organization will never need to utilize these plans, but when a crisis arises, you will surely be glad to have formulated – and practiced – your response.
Define your role: All the major players in an organization should have clearly defined roles in the event of a crisis. Who will be handling internal communications? What about external communications? Who is the designated spokesperson for the media? What about investors? While the list of roles goes on, assigning them before a crisis ensures an organization’s response can begin immediately after the crisis breaks.
Prepare your first three steps: After roles have been assigned, each individual should have a list of the first three things they will do in crisis-mode. Speed is vital in the first hour of the crisis, and having a checklist for each role will allow an organization to move quickly without getting muddled in extended deliberations. While working together as one unit is vital, a ‘first-three-steps’ plan of action for each person’s role allows for a cohesive autonomy and a speedy response.
Develop core messaging: Organizations needs to speak with one voice in crisis communications. Developing the core messages before a crisis occurs will keep everyone in any organization on the same page, and will help it to be proactive in combatting the confusion, lies, and misinformation that run rampant when a breaking news story first starts trending online.
A Heist at the Children’s Museum
Imagine you work on the executive board at the Ellisville Children’s Museum, which is consistently ranked as one of the “Top 10” in the nation with support from major corporations like Apple, Toyota, and Northrup Grumman. Your phone rings at 5:00 AM, you pick up, and a local reporter unleashes a barrage of questions. “We’ve received reports that the museum’s CEO and CFO have embezzled millions of dollars and have skipped town – can you confirm?” “Who’s in charge?” “Has the FBI been notified?”
This is the scenario my team was given during the workshop-portion of the development session, and we had one major obstacle: We weren’t given time to formulate an action plan before the crisis broke out. So, our first efforts were focused on discovery and containment. We decided to appoint one teammate, Paige, our lead spokesperson. By 10:00 AM, we had contacted the FBI and issued a statement to the press, on our website, and via social media. We did not offer much comment on the issue, citing the FBI’s ongoing investigation, but asked the media to contact Paige with inquiries.
Our team recalled the vitalness of internal communications during a crisis and, after deciding to maintain normal operating hours, convened our employees to inform them of the situation. In-person and via email, we asked them not to comment, and not speculate, to reporters.
As the ‘day’ wore on, the FBI confirmed that the money had been embezzled, and that the CEO and CFO not only worked to steal the money, but had been hiding a relationship as well. It became the “Crime of the Century” in the Ellisville Tribune. To reduce speculation, we decided to provide the press with hourly updates, confirming the money was stolen while reasserting the Children Museum’s commitment to community enrichment. We bolstered our credibility by hiring a third-party auditor to determine how the money was embezzled.
While our team responded well to the heist, we could have improved our performance by more clearly defining our roles. For example, Paige became our general spokesperson, but we should have appointed two— one to lead external communications and one to lead internal communications with our investors and employees. We also should have appointed someone to regularly canvas social media to gain perspective on the community’s reaction. More than anything, this exercise reinforced the importance of planning. A pre-planned response will always be more effective than one put together mid- crisis.
If you’re interested in improving your company’s own crisis preparedness, start by taking Padilla’s Crisis IQ quiz. According to Mike, 71% of those who take the quiz are not adequately prepared in the event of a crisis. Around 55% don’t have a crisis management plan, 66% do not practice their plan often enough (Padilla recommends once per year), and 85% ignore social media when drafting a plan.
It is, admittedly, highly unlikely that your CEO and CFO, after hiding a secret romance, will abscond with $10 million embezzled from your company. But your organization’s fortunes can falter at the drop of a hat. Having an organized, well-practiced crisis communications plan will ensure damage control begins before that hat hits the floor.