The Importance of Having a Crisis Communications Strategy
It’s the last quarter of what has been one of the most turbulent years in modern history. U.S. companies are addressing the third wave of COVID-19 infections, implementing social justice efforts, and navigating continued political division ahead of the November elections. Leaders are watching the elections closely and preparing for a variety of legislative and judicial outcomes. This is especially true for technology giants, as a renewed backlash against big tech, combined with election results, could spur actions targeting privacy, cybersecurity, antitrust, e-commerce, consumer protection, and compliance.
Companies that entered 2020 with crisis communication plans in place were able to adapt quickly to concurrent, unforeseen events, and put resources toward serving customers and supporting employees in new ways. Those without plans undoubtedly worked hard and fast to create them which, while effective, took precious time, money, and energy away from other areas of the business. Regardless of where your company falls, you’ve spent months living those plans. Now is the perfect time to reexamine the ones you have in place, determine your budget, gain leadership approval, and enter 2021 with the confidence that you are doing everything in your control to protect your business from the effects of a crisis:
- Financial: Companies can experience a direct loss in revenue, profit, stock price, and market capitalization, not to mention labor hours spent addressing the crisis and potential legal costs.
- Reputation: Companies risk losing customer loyalty and trust they have worked hard to build, as competitors actively seize your market share. And, once you’re under that microscope, other issues will come to light more quickly and easily than before (CNN: How United is navigating another PR disaster).
- Engagement: Employees watch closely how their companies handle crises, and your top talent has a choice of where to work in any economy. Companies that don’t stay true to their stated values and mission will generate cynicism among their ranks and risk employees taking their case to the court of public opinion (TheDenverChannel: Whistleblower says COVID-19 screening process at JBS plant places employees in danger).
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that having a crisis communications strategy is absolutely critical for companies and organizations of every size. And, those other crises don’t take a break for COVID-19. Many businesses and communities reeling from the pandemic and social unrest still have to handle natural disasters, workplace violence data breaches, product recalls, and leadership missteps (NPR: Top reason for CEO departures among largest companies is now misconduct, study finds). Companies have had to update their HR and other policies in real-time to reflect new energy toward racial justice and equality, often learning along the way. (CNN: Starbucks reverses its stance on BLM apparel).
The good news is that there are the right ways to handle a crisis. In fact, handling a crisis properly can not only minimize financial and reputation impact, but also help you strengthen the trust you have with customers, employees, suppliers, investors, and other key stakeholders. And the best way to ensure your organization handles a crisis well is to plan.
THE BENEFITS OF HAVING A CRISIS COMMUNICATION STRATEGY
Creating – and practicing – a clear crisis communications strategy helps your organization in numerous ways:
- Clarity: Crises are by their nature ambiguous. By determining key elements of your plan ahead of time, such as processes and responsibilities, you minimize unnecessary ambiguity and provide the clarity your teams need to address the crisis quickly and effectively.
- Speed: The speed with which you make decisions and respond to the crisis is critical to recovering from the situation, minimizing the news cycle, and rebuilding your reputation. A response that is slow or inadequate often becomes a secondary crisis.
- Alignment: Creating a messaging architecture and if/then scenarios in advance allow you to pressure test them against your company’s stated values, mission, and vision. Acting in accordance with your values during difficult times will help mitigate the crisis and earn respect. Misalignment between values, messages, and actions will create confusion and distrust, especially among employees.
- Consistency: Alignment is the foundation for acting consistently throughout a crisis. It’s okay to learn from the crisis experience and update messaging as the situation evolves, but it’s not okay to be seen as uncoordinated, inconsistent, or unprincipled.
- Focus: Having a strategy and key components of your plan determined in advance frees up precious time and mental energy for your team to focus on addressing other elements of the crisis.
- Integration: In many companies, communication-related functions sit in different departments. It’s not unusual to see social media and PR in marketing, internal communications in HR, customer contact in IT, customer research in strategy, investor relations in finance, and field or business unit communications in their respective areas or geographies. Create a strategy, relationships, and understanding before a crisis hits, so the company can speak and act with one credible, authentic voice.
THE INITIAL RESPONSE
To demonstrate the importance of each of these elements, let’s look at one component of addressing a crisis: the initial response.
The initial response is one of the most challenging and important aspects of how you’ll begin to recover from the crisis, as it sets the tone and expectation for what you will do next. A small problem can become a crisis if people don’t act with speed, confidence, empathy, and clarity from the start. In order to say the right thing quickly, that means:
- Decisions, message hierarchy, possible actions, point people, and escalation triggers should be pre-authorized and clear, so the right response can be developed and shared quickly. This includes roles and responsibilities, especially the approval chain. You can’t afford to lose time debating who should approve the message, or if it’s really what your company stands for. A slow or unclear response could be perceived as inept, apathetic, or even arrogant.
- If your initial response doesn’t align with stated company values or policies, an employee pointing that out on social media can create a secondary crisis. An initial response that doesn’t align with the company’s values or policies will need to be revised, giving the appearance of inconsistency and setting off another news cycle.
- Make sure your team understands and can focus on their crisis roles and responsibilities, whether that be media monitoring and outreach, employee communications, creating reports, or collaborating on the next steps. Teams that are mired in approvals or spinning on processes can’t focus on helping the business recover.
- How often has disruption occurred because the field didn’t have the same information corporate had, or one team didn’t know they should be using a new policy? Or customer service responded to something without knowing the issue already had gone viral? Making sure teams are on the same page can both prevent and address crises.
With the right crisis communications strategy in place, your efforts will improve the situation, not exacerbate it.
WHAT TO CONSIDER FOR A CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGY
A crisis communications strategy doesn’t need to be onerous. Using pre-built crisis communications plans can get you started on key elements. What’s important is that you have a plan, collaborate with key partners, practice and evaluate the plan, and update it at regular intervals. The time and effort you invest in the plan will be a fraction of the cost of rebuilding from a crisis.
Here are important aspects to consider when developing and evaluating your crisis communications plan:
- Crises: What are the crises your company will most likely face? These could include issues related to HR policies (pay and benefits, diversity and inclusion), safety and security (information security, workplace violence, disaster preparedness), product quality and recalls, or responsible sourcing. In addition to your own plans, benchmark other companies that have handled these issues well, and learn from ones that haven’t.
- Activation and Escalation thresholds: Know when to declare something a crisis and activate your first line of response. Determine what constitutes a low, medium, and high impact crisis, what triggers each level, and how your response (and leadership involvement) evolves.
- Policies: Make sure policies are current, easy to understand, and consistent. Issues can arise when employees follow outdated or miscommunicated policies. In particular, help employees understand your news media, social media, and other policies that involve supporting their rights while clarifying company expectations.
- Processes: Create clear and specific processes for how crises will be handled. Good processes aren’t limiting; rather, they free up people’s time and energy to focus on recovering from the crisis. Make sure processes include expedited approvals, ways to keep your executive committee and board informed, and how crisis team members will communicate and collaborate.
- People and Teams: Like processes, clear roles and responsibilities are critical so people can work as effectively as possible. This includes everyone from your CEO, to designated approvers and working groups, to who keeps the meeting minutes and communication log. Outside of formal roles, leverage the diverse perspectives of employees and internal resource groups. Many companies reduced their workforce in 2020, so regularly look at key contact lists and make sure they are up to date and reassign roles as needed.
- Communications: You can develop an extensive internal and external communications framework in advance to expedite crisis response. Key messages, templates, creative, contact lists, spokespeople, and preferred channels can be built (and approved) ahead of time. This will shorten development time when you’re in the crises and increase the speed and clarity of your response. Also, take this time to audit your internal and external communication channels for inconsistent or outdated information.
- Technology and Vendors: Know which services you may need to activate and have those relationships in place. This could include additional support or (literal) bandwidth for your web sites, contact centers, media monitoring, customer research, legal team, and more.
- Practice: Schedule a drill to find gaps and redundancies in your plan and start building crisis response skills with your team. Consider having an experienced crisis consultant lead or evaluate the drill to gain an objective perspective.
With these elements in place, your company can be more nimble and resilient in responding to a crisis and focus energy on rebuilding its reputation.
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About the Author: Lena Michaud
Lena is a communications executive with 25 years of experience in the areas of public relations, crisis communications, media training, internal communications, change management, and speech writing and coaching.
She previously held leadership roles at Target Corporation, Optum (UnitedHealth Group), Cargill, and JCPenney, and has nearly 15 years of experience in the retail industry. Lena has served as a media spokesperson on critical issues in the areas of public affairs, social issues and activism, safety and security, corporate governance, human resources, and litigation, and most recently led communications related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She holds a B.A. in political science from Northwestern University and an advanced marketing certification from Southern Methodist University.
Learn more about Lena on her LinkedIn Profile