Product recalls. Corporate scandals. Natural disasters.
Almost any organization can be faced with a crisis. How it handles the crisis can easily determine its success or failure.
Consider the response of Malaysia Airlines after the disappearance of flight MH370 with almost 240 passengers on board.
Early on, some people praised the airline for being “clear, honest and open in their communications,” and for “exuding competence and leadership in a crisis that has rightfully captured the attention of the entire world.”
Others were not so impressed, saying that the company had “been totally lacking on the compassionate end of it from the get-go,” that it “was completely not ready for a disaster like this,” and that it “didn’t act swiftly enough, nor did they stay on top of the issue, providing updates, or even just communicating there were not any updates to be made.”
And then there was that infamous text message, sent to relatives of the passengers: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived. As you will learn in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minster, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”
According to The Drum, the airlines claimed that most of the families had already been informed in person and by telephone. Even if that were the case, the text message seemed cold and impersonal to many observers.
Only time will tell what impact the crisis, and its aftermath, will have on the airline’s business. But the unfortunate episode does illustrate the importance of being prepared for a crisis, and of communicating appropriately when one occurs.
To do that, you need a plan. In this post, I’ll start outlining what to do before a crisis. In later posts, I’ll discuss what to do during and after a crisis.
Before a Crisis
Inventory potential problems.
In crisis management an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure. Fortunately, most crises can be anticipated because they have already happened to someone else at some point.
Your first step is to define a crisis for your organization. Consider all the things that could negatively affect your organization, directly or indirectly.
One approach is to ask management about potential vulnerabilities, which could include:
• Natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes)
• Environmental accidents (e.g., pollution)
• Management issues (e.g., corporate scandals)
• Employee issues (e.g., discrimination complaints)
• Safety and health matters (e.g., explosions)
• Legal issues (e.g., shareholder lawsuits)
• Online attacks (e.g., “rogue websites”)
• Bad publicity
Examine these situations and prioritize them according to their potential for harm. Focus first on the most probable and potentially most dangerous problems, and resolve or at least mitigate them if possible. In so doing, you can reduce the possibility that a crisis will occur.
Some of the most important crisis-management work is done at this stage. This is not the stuff of headlines. If you do a good job, almost no one will even know about it.
Sometimes you can’t totally avoid a crisis, but you can reduce its impact. One analysis of the World Trade Center suggests that hundreds of lives were saved because of the frequent safety drills conducted in the buildings. (“For Many on September 11, Survival Was No Accident,” USA Today, December 19, 2001) Surely 9/11 was a catastrophe of immense proportions, but things could have been worse.
Develop a plan.
Once you’ve identified potential crises for your organization, develop your plan, which should:
• Identify the crisis-communications team
• Prepare the communications messages and materials
• Plan the logistics.
Identify the crisis-communication team.
The crisis-communication team should include representatives from every department in the company, including finance, operations and communications. The president, CEO and any other appropriate spokesperson must be members.
Once everyone is identified:
• Give all members of the team complete contact information for everyone on the team, including office, home and cell phone numbers; Twitter handles; and emails for the team members, colleagues and even their partners.
• Designate a crisis manager and assistant manager who will be responsible for overall crisis management and communication.
• Determine the primary responsibilities of each member of the team.
• Identify the groups that you must communicate with, such as:
• The Board of Directors
• The media
• Community services such as police and fire.
• Designate a spokesperson and back-up spokesperson. This person (probably the president or CEO) will represent the company, make official statements and answer media questions. The back-up spokesperson will fill that role if the primary spokesperson is unavailable. Restrict all external communication to these spokespeople. It is essential that the organization present a unified image and consistent message.
• Prepare an up-to-date list of contact information for key internal and external people including the Board of Directors, the executive staff, major suppliers and customers, and important community leaders and services.
• Update your media list.
• Identify any internal or external experts who might be good resources. Third parties can add credibility in times of uncertainty. Include their complete contact information.
The good news is that a lot of this information is probably easily available. It just needs to be organized.
I’ll give more tips on what to do before a crisis in my next post.