Jan O'Driscoll, Senior Counsel
Crisis and Reputation Management
After establishing that you have a crisis plan, the most important question is a simple one - are you confident that it will work? With virtually everyone plugged in and with access to social media and the fact that media cycles are 24/7, the potential for crisis is everywhere, making an effective Crisis Management Plan (CMP) vital to organizations of all sorts - private and public sector, government agencies, charities, associations, etc. Even the biggest, most popular brands have disastrous failures. Lululemon's Chip Wilson's public apology is a perfect case study for what not to do.
Sadly though, most organizations are woefully ill-equipped to deal with crisis. Some will say that they have a communications plan or business continuity plan that covers crisis or that they have experienced professionals at the leadership levels who have dealt with and managed any and all types of crisis. Some will even say that they are immune to crisis and that even if one arose, they would deal with it once it happens.
What most people don't realize is that a CMP is all about execution. My advice would be to bring in a third party to conduct an audit or of the organization's communications/crisis plan and apply a pressure test to determine if these plans will actually work as well as their ability to respond to crisis. A third party helps overcome the possibility of group think, while bringing in a broader range of expertise. After a fulsome review, the establishment of a Crisis Response Team (CRT) is crucial. This team should be made up of a combination of senior leadership, policy experts, communications and public affairs, as well as in-house legal counsel. Once the team is in place, anticipating and predicting crisis is the next step. This will requires team members must be completely honest with themselves as to what exactly their company is potentially exposed to.
From past experience, I have seen first-hand how egos have gotten in the way and have led to less than stellar team meetings and derailed any progress that had been made. This is yet another example of where an outside third party is necessary as they are not as impacted by internal office politics and egos. Once there is an established list of possible crises, establishing holding lines and statements that can be used for each potential crisis identified is a must. These holding lines or statements are one of the most necessary parts of the entire CMP. It has been estimated that a company has no more than 2-3 hours to make your initial response to any media reports or inquiries surrounding a crisis. If that window of opportunity is missed, you face the unpleasant situation wherein your side of the story has been established by someone else - you're either the good guy or the bad guy or a neutral party to a bigger problem. And even worse, you are now in reactive mode in the eyes of your stakeholders and media which make you look on the defensive. Never a good place to be.
Deciding who speaks on behalf of the company can be tricky. Most will say the President or CEO, which is fine should the situation warrant their response. Sometimes its better to have someone else respond first and should things escalate then the CEO should be the main spokesperson. This step involves the CRT assessing the crisis and making their determination as to who will be the lead spokesperson. In many cases there will be multiple spokespeople depending on the severity of the crisis and what stage is it at. For all designated spokespeople, monthly or quarterly media training should be done to give your company the greatest chance at successfully implementing a CMP should the need arise. When the inevitable happens and a crisis arises, a holding statement should be issued by the media relations department.