If you’re getting the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it, you’re not alone. Most organizations don’t even want to think about facing a crisis until they find themselves, well, facing a crisis. But as a professor of mine used to say, “It’s not a matter of IF a crisis will hit, but WHEN” - so it’s best to be prepared.
Now, a crisis isn’t always something earth shattering, but it will throw a wrench in your day/week/month. And when tensions are high, it’s hard to think clearly. Having a basic plan ready to go can make or break the position you find your organization in while trying to mitigate a tricky situation. Here are some tips for both getting started on a crisis communications plan, and what to do in the event you have to put your plan to use.
Start by sitting down with your executive team and having a really, truly terrifying meeting where you brainstorm ALL the terrible things that could possibly befall your organization. There are several different categories of a crisis: natural, technological, confrontational and management misconduct to name a few. Start with one and just think – what could happen that would be a threat to your organization’s reputation? To your physical infrastructure? To your members? To your staff?
Determine Your Position & Action Items
Next, take ALL of those threats – every single one – and determine what action you’ll take, your stance on the issue and the communications tactics you’ll implement. Obviously this will change based on specific circumstances, but generally speaking you can start to formulate a response that is supportive of your mission and values.
Get ideas by looking at crises that similar organizations have faced and how they handled it. Hint: a good indication that a crisis was handled well will be that you don’t even remember it happened! Ask colleagues and counterparts from around the country what has worked for them and what hasn’t, what crises they have prepared for and why, and what crises they may have already faced.
Figure Out Who Will Do What, and When
A written plan should include the names and contact information – ALL forms of contact – for the crisis team. This team should be reserved for only the most crucial association staff members; that way, it’s easier and more succinct to ensure everyone is on the same page and that communications aren’t delayed. Determine each person’s role so they can immediately get to work.
One of the most important roles in a crisis is identifying who your spokesperson will be, should one be needed. Your CEO (or similar) is a pretty standard choice…but what if that person just isn’t good at public speaking? A crisis is no time to wing it - designate a spokesperson who is comfortable, and train, train, train them to be in front of the media.
Further, anyone not on the crisis team itself plays a role, too. While they might not be involved in mitigating the crisis directly, your entire staff must have an understanding of the situation. Everyone from the top down interacts with members in some way, and their support will be imperative! Be sure to develop basic talking points for entry to mid-level employees, and point person for them to direct the tougher questions.
Don’t Win Through Spin
Provide facts. Correct misinformation. Be transparent! Your communications should maintain honesty, empathize with those who may be negatively impacted, and relate to your audience.
In this age of the 24-hour news cycle, everyone wants all of the information all the time. Should you find yourself in a newsworthy situation, keep your cool when the media comes calling. Do your best with what you know at the time. “No comment” is often seen as abrasive – try “I understand you’re looking for information, but we’re still investigating.” When you do have the information, be prompt with your response. Demonstrate your cooperation.
Take a Disciplined Approach
Practice what you will say; when the time comes, do not change course. Move forward with the decisions that you and your team have determined will be the best ahead of time. After all, you made this plan for a reason. Don’t let a panic set in and change your mind! Revisit your plan on a regular basis to keep it constantly up to date.
A crisis is not a death sentence, but it must be handled correctly. Taking the time to plan ahead could make all the difference in a difficult situation! You’ll be thankful you did.
And in a crisis situation, social media will be your best friend. It’s the quickest way to reach a mass audience - and since they’re YOUR channels, you have complete control over what is said. If you need to strengthen your existing social media strategy, check out our free guide: Small-Staff Guide to Social Media!