Given the state of politics, it's probably never been easier getting into a crisis and never more difficult to get out of one without alienating someone. Unfortunately, this became true for a client that had been in business for a decade or so, and, for most of that time, had the good luck of avoiding any crises.
We provided counsel to them, and compiled the following five lessons (some based on other observations):
- Develop a crisis
plan before a crisis. You may have built up goodwill and strong
relationships with your customers and your community over the years, and have
avoided a crisis – but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a crisis plan.
Crises can happen to good companies but it makes sense to develop a plan.
The plan should include a range of crisis scenarios – even though you
should expect that the actual crisis probably won’t exactly fit into any
one of your scenarios. But at least it starts the process of how to
respond. If you don’t have a process when a crisis hits, it’s harder to
know how to respond, and that’s when a potential small fire can start to
burn out of control. The other aspect of a crisis plan that’s is important
is developing an internal communications process so that when a crisis
hits, different layers are informed and understand 1) that the company
recognizes it’s dealing with a crisis; 2) that it is taking the crisis
seriously; and 3) that people inside the company have the information they
need to know to manage their jobs during the crisis. We’ve seen situations
where board members, for example, didn’t know what the plan was and were
second-guessing every time the company issued a statement.
- Make sure to
allocate appropriate resources. One of the other aspects of a crisis
plan is to determine a task force of people who can focus on the crisis.
Another aspect is to understand the potential costs. According to a
colleague, one client felt the crisis would quickly die down so it asked
that its agency to stop work several times over a two-week period, to save
the budget, only to be caught short-handed as its crisis continued to
spiral. They kept a short-term perspective both in terms of budget and in
terms of working towards an outcome. Also make sure to have people monitor
social media, and decide what to respond to and what doesn’t need to a
response. And also to develop messages that appropriate staff can
communicate to key stakeholders that include employees, customers, and
- Sometimes clients
are in a no-win situation. It’s important to understand, that through
no fault of their own, clients may several possible paths – and none of
them may be ideal because one group or another will be left unhappy.
Social media reactions can make the in-crisis organization feel like
they’re between a rock and a hard place. In that case, organizations need
- What’s the worst-case
scenario and how can we minimize the likelihood?
- What’s the best-case
scenario, and how can we make that happen?
- If we can’t avoid
upsetting people on both sides, how can we minimize the impact?
- What steps do we need
to take after the crisis is over to rebuild goodwill?
- Do we announce a
post-mortem showing that we’ve learned our lessons?
- Do we suspend any of
our operations – like advertising or even what’s on our social media
- If you send an email
to employees, expect it to circulate. This did not happen with
our most recent client crisis but we’ve all seen this before. So keep in
mind: Even a well-intended note to employees can be hard to craft, and you
should expect that any email will be distributed to outsiders or posted on
social media. Also keep in mind that if you communicate to employees in a
town hall setting, someone may tape the discussion. The point here is just
make sure that whatever you communicate to employees is something that you
won’t mind seeing in print or on social.
- Make sure to
communicate via the channels most relevant to the upset. We have seen
clients who responded to traditional reporters but ignored social media.
Responding on social media may not be the right vehicle but it’s important
to look at options. Please know that whatever you post could be
misconstrued as easily, if not more so, than employee communications.