Imagine the unimaginable. Those things you most dread for your business. Thinking about everything from bankruptcy and criminal wrongdoing to a product failure or deaths are not a pleasant exercise. But every now and then, you need to go through it.
How would you respond? Do you have a plan in place to guide you through these possibly frantic, assuredly emotional times?
If the answer is no, or if you haven’t reviewed your plan for a while, here are some suggestions to help in creating or updating your process.
Know Who Does What
Designate a media point-person to communicate directly with editors and reporters. This individual fields requests for information, provides accurate and timely updates, sets up interviews as needed with management and company experts, and monitors coverage.
Identify your spokesperson. This may or may not be the point-person. This person should be prepared to appear on-camera and in print as the authoritative voice of the company. For major crises, this really should be your CEO. His or her involvement signifies that you take this seriously and, from the top on down, are working toward resolution. Assigning one person streamlines the communications process and limits the possibility of misquotes, inconsistencies and erroneous information.
Instruct all staff to refrain from talking to the media without company knowledge and approval. Any media questions need to be referred to the point-person.
Establish a designated crisis team and contacts for each member. Determine now who needs to be involved in decision-making during a crisis. Determine how this team will interact – meeting physically or virtually through conference calls, texts or emails.
Anticipate Key Lines of Questioning
Your plan should include figuring out what to say, when to say it and to whom. Start by thinking through the questions likely to come your way.
- Were people hurt? Was there loss of life?
- Will victims recover?
- How did this happen?
- Why weren’t precautions taken to prevent this from happening?
- What is being done about it?
- How is it dangerous and how dangerous is it?
- What is the actual damage?
- When will the situation be under control?
- Can it happen again?
- What steps are you taking to ensure this won’t happen again?
Plan Now for Success Later
Speed is key. And nothing is more convenient or faster than a website. We highly recommend setting up a dark site that can be quickly, efficiently activated when needed. This can be a completely separate website or simply a page or section on your existing site. Once activated, this prebuilt website serves as the dedicated, go-to source for crisis information and updates, while still allowing your existing site to function as before.
A dark site helps you control the conversation, squelch rumors and untruths, gain trust through transparency, and keep the situation from blowing up out of proportion. If you don’t fill the information vacuum created by a crisis, others will. Your homepage should note the situation and direct readers to the (previously dark) site for the latest information. I can hear you now. Why point out bad news on your homepage? It’s the right thing to do. If you ignore the crisis on your website, it appears you are stonewalling, hiding something or treating the crisis lightly.
The site should be designed using a content-management system (CMS) such as WordPress, so your communications team has full control in making updates. It should include a brief, but straightforward overview statement about what has happened. This could come from the CEO. Include statements of compassion for everyone affected. Talk about the steps you’re taking now and what you’ll be doing next. Share media contacts.
Guide the public to contact forms where they can submit questions not answered on the site, or, if appropriate, where they could make a donation to help victims. Include a Twitter feed on the dark site’s main page, and use Twitter for minute-by-minute (if needed) updates. Include sign-up forms if you plan to send email/text-message updates.
Practice with Your Spokesperson
Don’t let the urgencies of the crisis or the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from talking to the media. If you evade them, you seem to be hiding something.
You can help overcome this natural reticence through training. Even if your spokesperson is used to being in front of a camera and interviewed, dedicated crisis media training builds confidence and skills. In a crisis, the tenor of questioning changes. Reporters want answers. Now. They may view you in a negative light. They may try to get you to speculate, assign fault, say more than you want, or respond to a question you can’t answer.
Remember, nothing is off-the-record. Your smallest, off-the-cuff statement can be magnified and used as a leading point. Draft possible questions and suggested answers. Go over them verbally in front of a video camera. Lob the questions to your spokesperson. Mix them up. Throw in random ones. Play the answers back and talk about what went right – and the responses that fell short. Practice can help your spokesperson remain calm and not go on the defensive with an aggressive reporter.
The Crisis Takes Priority
Once a crisis strikes, there is no time to put together a plan. Responding quickly, compassionately and humanely becomes your number-one priority alongside doing the right things to avoid something similar in the future. Plan now. Know your protocols. And pray you never need to activate them.