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Preparing for the Worst

Imagine if a reputation-destroying crisis comes calling at your company, are you prepared to handle it confidently? Do you have an existing Crisis Communications Plan, or a well-trained crisis management team to help tackle the crisis effectively? Like any other business in the world, every organisation, big or small, is prone to experience a crisis at anytime, anywhere. Therefore, advanced planning and deliberate preparation are the keys to survival in the event of crisis. Check out our recent interview with Craig J Selby, Metanoia Ltd’s Director, who provides his expert insights on crafting a crisis communications plan.

1.    What are the types of crises that may occur? That said, can you really plan for a crisis?

A crisis is anything that brings negative attention towards your business or your business outcomes. It may be the result of an internal fault, eg; the recent issues with Samsung or VolksWagen; or it may be the results of external forces, eg; Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 where there is still extreme uncertainty. Crisis may be real or perceived. It may be caused by staff or by customers, or by third parties.

Yes, you are right that this is wide. But, it can be planned for. Whilst we cannot forsee every potential issue, we can identify categories of issues, and use this identification to help us develop a plan, or scenario, for when something similar happens.

We all hope that it doesn’t happen, but at times, things will occur. Sometimes these things fall outside that of what we have planned. However, the planning process itself is what helps us here – our mindset is already reshaped into the required paradigm; thus making our response to a crisis much more succinct. Ultimately, that’s what the public need to see – an organisation with a clear focus who appear to be on top of things – even if, in reality, they are not.

2.    What is a Crisis Communications Plan; and how does it come into play during a crisis?

A Crisis Communications Plan is an organisation-wide document that spells out roles and responsibilities during a crisis, protocol for action, and even details best practice models for moving forward. It is unique to each organisation, but the commonalitles mean that a company can ensure aall of its team are trained to handle a negative situation, and that the voice of the company is one, rather than many.

It comes into play as a guide for dealing with situations. By setting protocols, it helps ensure consistency of message; and it also helps to give focus to the teams involved.

3.    What are the key elements of an effective Crisis Communications Plan, and how can we craft content for each of these elements?

A Crisis Communications Plan has many elements. But the most important are the roles and responsibilities, communication channels, protocols, and approaches to possible scenarios.

Crafting relevant content for each is an indepth process. It should involve interviewing team members at all levels of the organisation; to better understand internal processes and communication standards.

Ultimately we seek plausible and actionable plans for times of crisis which resonate well with the organisation. But these come from within first.

Additionally, we need to learn from past mistakes. Maybe the organisation has had previous issues which we can learn from. What worked well, and what didn’t. Furthermore, we can look outside of the organisation to understand how other businesses, be it within the same industry or further afield, have worked on addressing crises of a similar nature.

Once the content is crafted to the detail required, the most important step becomes training the teams to understand how to respond, and how to work together to survive the situation.

4.    Why do you advocate that every company develops a Crisis Communication Plan?

Forewarned is forearmed.

As simple as that. I advocate the development of plans to get team members focussed on possibilities; to remind them that the status quo may not always be as smooth, and to get people involved in pro-active problem solving.

5.    How can an organisation identify and assemble a crisis management team?

A crisis management team does not always have to be all senior management; but senior management need to be actively involved. By understanding the organisation through research, one can see key pivotal roles and communications channels, and it is through here that core members of the crisis management team can be engaged.

A thorough understanding of the organisation, its structure, its key issues, and its culture is essential in identifying and developing a team for such circumstances.

6.    Who are the significant stakeholders that should be addressed in a crisis, and why?

The answer to this varies depending on the organisation and the nature of the crisis. It may be as simple as dissatisfied customers, who can be addressed and worked with on a face-to-face level; or it may be deeper and involve third parties.

Once something becomes identified as a crisis, media are likely to be involved. However, not every crisis is of interest to media – but your response to the crisis may be. A popular KL bakery discovered that when it faced a dissatisfied customer. The customer complained online regarding service standards and prices. The bakery management responded with unflattering comments and insults, which in turn were shared first with marketing industry media, and then picked up by mainstream media. The initial cause of the crisis, an unhappy customer, would not have gained media traction, but the bakery’s inappropriate response, did.

Thus, different stakeholders may emerge throughout the crisis experience, either adding to the scenario, or helping to limit it.

As a basic rule, first and foremost address affected parties and customers first; then shareholders and quasi-related parties. If media become involved, focus your attention towards showing media how you are addressing the matter for affected parties. Do not disproportionately shift your attention to parties who are less or not affected. Do not go for the easy option.

7.    When a crisis strikes, what do you think is the main ingredient in an incident media statement to respond to the public?

Be sincere. Be genuine. Be honest.

8.    An organisational leader has to learn to handle media interviews or press conferences during a crisis. Can you highlight on the importance of media training to ensure effective communications during a crisis outbreak?

Facing the media at any time can be a daunting task for any spokesperson. Training the spokespeople in advance helps to ensure that they can handle the interaction with grace and professionalism, whilst still ensuring that the sincerity, genuinity, and honesty from above comes through. Empathy goes a long way, but quite often, the defensive mode kicks in during difficult times, and we need some element of training to help keep us on a level field.

9.    How often does an organisation need to review its crisis communications plan? With that, what are some of the ways that an organisation can communicate the plan internally to staff?

There is not a fixed time, but a good systems auditor would ensure that a review is at least annually. I personally believe that the plan should be reviewed more frequently; as changes happen within an organisation, key personnel change, or as major external crises offer us key learnings to help strengthen our own plan.

Staff meetings, periodic training sessions, and internal newsletters / communiques are important tools to help communicate the plan. Just like a regular fire drill, we need to keep the team involved. For her hires, the plan should be discussed during their induction, and then followed up during other appropriate team opportunities.

10. Case studies in crisis communication offer us examples of scenarios to prepare for crises. How do we craft a relevant case study that can help prepare an organisation for effective and efficient response when a crisis happens?

Absolutely they do, as mentioned earlier. Case studies give us an opportunity to armchair (or swivel chair) critique scenarios, and to think through what we would have done, what went wrong, what went right, and whether the same thing could happen to us. It’s an easier leap than one might expect.

Crafting the case study is a different story. There are so many ways to do this, that there is no one answer. But as with all cases, an understanding of what happened, its chronology, the outcomes, key learnings – these become essential elements. It’s important not to hand everything to yourteam on a plate – let them think, and take ownership for coming up with ideas too – as this will become a valuable contribution to your own organisations key learnings.

11. Social media has become a central part in our daily lives now. Should organisation respond to crisis in their social media platforms? If so, are there any specific guidelines or protocols of using social media in crisis situations?

Rule of thumb – if your organisation uses social media platforms to promote itself, then it should use these to respond.

Social media is an embedded business component for many businesses these days. As such, it becomes a primary point of contact between customer and organisation; therefore, it is naturally expected that social media will be used to communicate through.

However, as much as we should use this channel, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater and forget traditional channels. When communicating with media, stll ensure that press releases are disseminated to trusted media contacts through your organisations usual ways, we well as uploading them to social media. Recent trends have been to use only social media, and media outlets who upload their source from social media channels tend to be more negative about a situation than those who had direct contact from the organisation itself. Just a point to consider, as we need to look at multiple channels for communication.

Try to avoid insincere, automated responses. These are obvious, and can turn a curious customer into a very dissatisfied one quite quickly.

Sometimes, your social media platforms will be overwhelmed with feedback, and this will exceed team capacity. This is normal, and not everyone expects a personal reply. Where possible, for agitators and those with genuine concern, take the conversation offline at the earliest possible opportunity.

Avoid shutting down your social media channel – nothing says guilt faster than hiding. Curtain University experienced this a few years back when it offered an honary PhD to the Malaysian Prime Ministers wife – the phenomenal negative feedback overwhelmed the University to the point that it took its social media channels offline. This did nothing to pacify the situation – it only made certain quarters angrier, and prolonged the scenario. Shutting down your social media has to be a last resort, but consider it carefully.

Good planning would create protocols for these scenarios. For example, at first sign of issues, protocol might be to disable comments on social media platforms, thus limiting the opportunity for the public to flood your platform with negativity. This is of course a case-by-case scenario, and I can’t advocate this for every or all business; but our Crisis Communications Plan research will take into account social media users interaction with the business, and the best way to guide and control this during a crisis scenario.

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