Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The crisis you didn't anticipate: How to be flat-footed

"I know how to handle the major kinds of crises," said the communications pro. "Natural disasters, floods, fires." She paused. "Not scandals." She sounded dubious that she'd need that knowledge, as if a scandal or financial crisis were unlikely.

To my mind, that's exactly the type of crisis for which you should prepare: The one you're not anticipating.

I see a lot of companies and organizations who view crisis anticipation--and the communicators who get it--as rain on their parade. Asking about possibilities for crisis often prompts an automatic "that could never happen here" reaction. But it would be a mistake to take that answer and stop running scenarios. Nonprofts have embezzlers, fraud and even stolen credit card data that puts customers at risk. Wall Street occasionally gets flooded, or hit by terrorists. And staid research organizations have learned to be wary when their scientists' papers wind up in Retraction Watch. The idea that "that could never happen here" feels nice...and impractical.

Whatever you think is your "typical" crisis may not be the one that occurs. And every organization has issues it knows about, but doesn't like to talk about, the very thing communicators should be preparing for as crises-in-the-making. Universities subject to the federal laws sexual violence are now finding themselves publicized for failing to comply, and the government's affordable colleges website is a different kind of list that some universities can't get on no matter how much PR they do.

The risk isn't just that the unlikely crisis makes a good news story. Your lack of readiness to respond might become part of the story, too--and could have serious impact on your customers, supporters and users. That's something any CEO can understand, and a way to sell her on creating a culture of preparedness.

There are two easy ways to make this happen in your comnpany, university, government agency or nonprofit:
  • Create a regular meeting--weekly is not too often--in which the communicators invite the programmatic, product or subject-matter experts. Ideally, a regular representative attends these weekly sessions with the job of reporting on what's coming up, anything that looks like a surprise on the near horizon, and their wish list of public events and announcements. The communicators listen and use what's shared in the meeting to plan for and track issues, then manage them. When I ran public affairs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that weekly meeting coughed up lots of information that made the difference between a surprise crisis and a well-managed public announcement.
  • Become the link between senior management and crisis planning. In every organization where I've led communications, major public events occur that involve most of the management. Getting the senior managers briefed in advance on what might go wrong and what's being done about it not only means you're all prepared, it helps build a culture in which people share stinky things before they become full-blown fires. People start to bring you things before they become problems. You know more, and you're better at strategizing as a result.
No, no one wants more meetings. But if you play your cards right, these become must-attend meetings, because the participants have one place to go to find out what's really going on. Suddenly, the knowledge your communications shop gathers becomes intelligence, a means of internal information sharing as well as fodder for external comms strategies.  Try it, and give it six months to a year.
Even if you can't manage these regular intervals, you might consider what many of my clients have requested of me: A facilitated half-day or full-day session, at least once a year, in which we look at scenarios and responses to make sure your company or organization has begun to think about the crises that are possible, specifically for you and your business. I guarantee you'll have more on your radar screen, ahead of time....and isn't that how you should handle a crisis?

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Lindsay Bayley)

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