Toyota, Tiger Woods and the Roman Catholic Church have us all thinking and talking about crisis lately. Public Relations analysts everywhere are commenting across the media about how these crises are being handled. The stakes are high and a poorly handled crisis can have substantial negative impact on an organization or brand. But it’s not just high-profile celebrities, corporations and organizations that need to have a crisis communication plan, all companies and nonprofits should have one.
We’re just a small nonprofit/business, what kind of crisis could we have?
The reality is that any organization or business, big or small, could be faced with a crisis at any time. That’s just the way life works. When you take time to think about things that could happen that could put your organization in a negative light, you might be surprised at the length of the list.
So, what can you do to prepare today for something (you don’t know what) that could happen in the future? The answer is that you can develop a plan that addresses the general categories of crises that could happen for your particular organization. Having a plan is important because crisis usually happens without any warning and the longer you take to respond, the bigger the challenge to get control of it. Note, crisis doesn’t always happen without warning and that’s where good issues management comes in.
Elements of a crisis communication plan
- Identify the types of crises your organization might face. For example, if you run an organization that provides services to children, one category might involve a child in your program getting seriously hurt or abused. If you operate a restaurant or food product business, a potential crisis could be that someone gets food poising.
- Identify who needs to be part of the crisis response for each category. This way, as soon as the crisis hits, there is no time lost figuring out who should be involved in addressing the issue. Remember to select alternates in case the people you first identify are unavailable.
- Identify a spokesperson. Most often, that is your most senior management person. Why? Because having your senior manager/owner as the spokesperson conveys that addressing the crisis is important and a high priority for your organization.
- Identify the audiences. This is an important component because during a time of crisis, it’s easy to forget to communicate with some audiences. This is especially true if the crisis ends up being in the media spotlight. People are so focused on the media messaging, they forgot about keeping employees, volunteers and other stakeholders informed. You should have a plan for how you will communicate to these different audiences and who will take responsibility for it.
Although you can’t plan for every nuance of an unexpected crisis, generally, your communication plan should include the following three steps:
- Take responsibility. Don’t avoid the crisis by remaining silent and hoping it will all just go away. This is often a gut instinct and it is a misguided one—especially when it comes to the media. Taking responsibility does not necessarily mean taking the blame for a situation. What you’re taking responsibility for is a response. Initially, you may not even have a handle on all the details of the crisis. Even in this case, it is not the time to refuse comment to the media. That’s when speculation sets in and not saying anything makes you look guilty of something. Instead, make a clear statement that you recognize the crisis situation, you are working on getting the details as quickly as you can and will respond with more information once you have it.
- Come up with short-term plans and announce them. Following from the above, it’s not always possible to have a detailed plan of action for how your organization will move forward but you can explain what you are going to do immediately. Again, that may simply mean that you are going to gather more information in order to be better prepared to act.
- Devise longer term plans and announce them. What are you going to do in the long run to address what happened and avoid something similar happening in the future.
It is also a gut instinct to try to cover up wrong doings, deficits in procedure and human error. Don’t. Not only are you very likely to get caught, but when you do get caught, your reputation and the reputation of your organization will take a bigger hit than if you admitted the error or shortcoming in the first place. If you or your organization has done something to cause harm, admit it.
Make a statement about what went wrong, say you’re sorry and talk about what you’re going to do to fix it. Then, fix it. It’s really basic human relations at play here if you think about the lessons we learned in kindergarten. People respect this approach and, if it’s sincere, are generally satisfied with it if they see changes are being made. Your organization and/or brand could actually come out stronger at the end for dealing with a crisis well.
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