What if? Anticipation + preparation = effective crisis communication

Effective Crisis Communication

The keys to success in effective communication during a crisis are speed, clarity and accessibility. Crises happen that require rapid response. Any good business likely has some plan in place operationally. But what about “communicationally”? (Hmm, a new word?)

In following a variety of security breach stories from Sony to Comodohacker, I’ve naturally been watching the communication side of things. For communication pros and CEOs, it’s worth comparing how companies have handled speed of disclosure, clarity in their communication and accessibility to resources…and the resulting range of reactions from sympathetic (“This could happen to any company”) to hostile (“Why wasn’t I notified directly?”).

What you say, whom you say it to and how you get the word out matters. For the skeptics, it’s not just “spin” – it has a direct impact on preventing customer and partner defections (limiting recurring revenues), closing pending deals  and building future pipeline.

If you don’t have one already, put a basic crisis plan in place now. Here are some of the elements to help you get started.

Brainstorm your own “if-then” scenarios.  Set up a session with your management team.  You know the vulnerabilities of your business.  You can’t necessarily fill in the specifics in advance, but you can have a general idea of what can go wrong, how it might happen, how customers (and/or partners, etc.) can be affected and various options  to remedy the situation.  Now consider (and capture) the elements of what you would say, who’d do what, whom you say it to and where.

Get the basic storyline in place. In my earlier post on crisis communications, I talked about what to say:  Here’s the situation, here’s how it affects you, here’s how it happened and here’s what we’re doing about it.

Establish a response team:  Directly involve as few people as possible on the response team itself; it should be limited to a designated communications person to coordinate and manage, the CEO as the spokesperson and no more than a couple of others – perhaps a technical expert if needed. This isn’t to “gatekeep,” but to ensure consistency and eliminate confusion – and avoid distraction among those who need to deal with the specifics of a crisis.

Assign additional input and review people to  match the “if-then” scenarios of who’s affected (customer support, finance, sales, alliances, etc.).  And don’t forget legal, whether for consultation or for official review.

Role play the Q & A: Based on your “what-if” scenarios, anticipate the questions a journalist would ask and how you’d answer. Make sure you are clear and concise. In role play, the follow up questions from your “journo” should indicate where you’re rambling, where you’re speaking jargon, where you’re defensive or evasive, where you’ve gone down a “rabbit hole”  (an unrelated or irrelevant tangent that gets you off track).

Maintain an emergency contacts list: Every company should have an instantly accessible list of its most strategic customers, partners and press contacts. Review it once a quarter. You don’t want to waste time in a crisis updating your database.

Prioritize outreach to stakeholders: Start with those affected directly first and continue outward from there. Be prepared to engage with them directly and individually, depending on the severity of the situation, up front or in follow up.

Have an interactive “news flash” capability: Whether it’s a hidden blog, support page or news site with comment section, make sure you have a place that can be launched quickly (and is easy to find), easy to update and able to capture comments and questions (whether publicly or directed to a person).

Match the communication channel to the context: You can’t explain a problem in 140 characters, but you can tweet updates and drive people to more information on the blog, support page or dedicated microsite.

Work with the media: Even if you’re not actively engaged in media relations, be aware of the journalists and bloggers who cover your category and have written on your anticipated crises (you’re likely not the first or only) so that you can reach out to them proactively.  It’s their job to get the facts, so give them what they need to help you communicate.

You need to be prepared. With most tech companies moving fast and understaffed, it’s not always easy to carve out time for this.  In Covey’s parlance, it might be considered important but not urgent. Until it is.

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