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Nathan Miller is the Founder and CEO of Miller Ink, a strategic communications firm.
2020 has made abundantly clear the importance of effective crisis communications. A global pandemic, nationwide protests, deep economic recession, contentious election and historic natural disasters have all demanded leaders and organizations rise to the challenge of communicating during a crisis.
Some have fared better than others.
In so many ways, the challenges of communicating during a crisis have been compounded by a seismically shifting media landscape. With the advent of social media, influence is no longer concentrated in the hands of age-old media institutions. Today, anyone with internet access can be a publisher. A viral tweet can do more harm or good for your brand than a story in The New York Times.
It is more critical than ever that your organization develop and institutionalize a comprehensive crisis management protocol. When a crisis strikes and the clock begins to tick, a cogent crisis management plan that aligns responses, designates spokespeople and outlines a clear plan of action can be the antidote to a PR nightmare.
Public relations and strategic communication firms often purport to have the answers, building for clients — under hefty retainers — crisis management protocols designed to ward off negative coverage, wherever it may appear. But are you truly getting the most out of your organization’s crisis management protocol? Is your organization prepared to act methodically to mitigate negative coverage, leverage interview opportunities and amplify your voice?
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While promised in any crisis management plan worth its while, such an outcome is based not on promises, contracts or lengthy memos, but in action, preparation and execution. Any protocol can promise a positive result; the devil lies in the delivery.
Effective crisis management protocols are centered around three critical actions: gathering inbound information, metering the flow of outbound information and achieving alignment. To determine whether your organization is truly deriving the most from its crisis plan, simply ask: Does my team know how to discern facts from noise under pressure? Do we know — clearly and unequivocally — who is permitted to be speaking to the media? Does every member of my team understand their unique roles in a crisis situation?
If the answer to any of these questions is anything other than a categorial “yes,” your crisis protocol is more vulnerable than you thought.
When a crisis strikes, the pressure is on.
Having a team that can judiciously discern fact from fiction, question from complaint, and sincere inquiries from spam is the opening salvo in any effective crisis response. The more efficiently your team can collect inbound information, the faster your public relations firm can begin to craft a strategy.
Like all facets of crisis response, though, this is easier said than done.
Critical in these situations is teaching your team never to divulge information to reporters unknowingly. When the media calls, your team must know never to issue a statement or answer a question. A strong crisis management protocol makes this clear and gives employees strategies to streamline their conversations with reporters and extract relevant information while minimizing risks.
PR firms can improve this capability on the front end by preparing a line for employees to deliver in these situations. For example, employees should be instructed to say to the reporter: “I am not an authorized spokesperson for [insert organization name]. I will give your information to my supervisor.”
This line quickly signals to the reporter that the team member they have engaged is not an appropriate contact and that a comment from a designated spokesperson could be on the horizon.
Your staff should then be trained to ask the reporter for their name, outlet, email or phone and print deadline. In a rapidly evolving situation, garnering and transmitting this information is critical.
The hardest thing about managing outbound information is not crafting it but controlling it.
Any public relations firm should have the capacity to quickly and effectively author and deliver a statement to the media addressing the situation at hand. An integrative crisis protocol ensures that this statement — and this statement alone — is all that is divulged to the media.
Your team needs to know that your public relations firm is a professional, strategic resource at their disposal. When the cards are down, it is critical they understand their PR representative will do the talking.
PR firms achieve this by building a presence within the companies they service. Your employees should be well-acquainted with your representative and know how to contact them in a crisis.
Crisis responses are like football. In both scenarios, a diverse group of professionals works individually, yet according to an overall strategy, to advance a common goal. Both tasks, whether scoring touchdowns or acing interviews, are centered around a playbook.
In a crisis, alignment ensures everyone on your team is working by the same playbook. While the COO and the front-office receptionists may be playing vastly different roles within a crisis response, both must operate in conjunction with the master plan.
An uncoordinated response — when one party acts a certain way and the other in another — is a liability.
Unfortunately, we see this all the time, often in high-profile scenarios. A president makes a statement and a cabinet secretary contradicts them. The CEO says one thing and the board chairman another. The star player publicly blames the coach, and the coach the player.
Misaligned responses signal to the world that your organization is mired in chaos and exacerbates already fraught situations.
Practice makes preparation, and a high-quality crisis response protocol should include regular trainings to help your team achieve alignment. Your PR representative should conduct 30-minute crisis response trainings with your team each quarter, laying out in detail what is expected during a crisis scenario and even roleplaying potential scenarios.
Successful crisis management plans make their mark on the margins. Is your protocol meeting the challenges of the moment? In this year’s deluge of crises, it can’t afford not to be.
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