Get Your Crisis Plan in Ready Mode

Whether you’re CEO of a large corporation or a small family business, you’re not exempt from a crisis. These days, one type of crisis or another crops up in the news all the time, and small businesses are often the victim — with profits lost due to arson, product tampering, someone getting hurt on the premises, a sexual harassment lawsuit, etc.

If something like this happened at your business, would you be prepared to handle it?

It’s too late to develop a crisis communications plan once the crisis hits. You need to have a plan in place with professionals “on call.” You need to know how to communicate both internally and to the media, who’s going to get you through this stressful time, and what message you want to transmit to stakeholders and the general public.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Have a team in place. Appoint a crisis communications team, develop a crisis communications plan and then communicate it to all appropriate parties. This plan needs to have systems developed to disseminate information quickly and efficiently, internally and externally, before and after a crisis strikes.
  • Be proactive. Proactive media and community relations programs should be part of any comprehensive crisis plan. This includes maintaining an ongoing public and community relations program and developing positive relationships with local media representatives and community leaders. These valuable relationships will help minimize the impact when a crisis strikes.
  • Communicate with your internal audience first. Employees should never hear about a crisis for the first time on the six o’clock news. And as the crisis unfolds, it’s important to “over-communicate” in order to exercise rumor control and strengthen employee morale. Providing no information creates a vacuum, which gets quickly filled with speculation (usually erroneous and damaging speculation).
  • Show that you care. The internal audience is not just employees, but shareholders, clients, community contacts and professional colleagues as well. After the tragedy of September 11, we recommended that clients post messages of concern on their Web sites, send out a “how we’re doing” message to shareholders and customers, and let the general public know that they cared and that their businesses were still in operation.
  • Be honest. It’s not necessary to reveal confidential or sensitive information, but companies should provide as much information as they can — and always tell the truth.
  • Take some media training. Simple media training for the CEO and senior staff is a good precautionary step. During a time of crisis, people want to hear from someone at the top, preferably a person who has experience in getting his or her message across. Under no circumstances should someone who’s not a designated spokesperson speak for to the media.
  • Develop message points. Concise message points should be developed to communicate the essence of the business and the type of responsive actions being taken to handle the crisis. If you don’t have a communications professional on staff, run your messages by a trusted, objective outsider (a lawyer, accountant, business colleague) with whom you have a particularly close relationship.
  • Get your message out. Small businesses may have limited budgets for distribution of information, but there are plenty of inexpensive ways to get your message out, including e-mail, postings on your Web site, messages on voice-mail — even the old-fashioned method of calling people on the telephone! Establish a phone tree in advance, detailing all the calls that need to be made during a crisis, so that you’re prepared to get your message across to those who need to hear it most.The key to effective crisis response is having a plan in place ahead of time. Don’t let a crisis turn into a disaster.Mary Schnack, owner of Mary Schnack Media Services, Inc., is a public relations consultant and crisis communications expert based in Sedona, Arizona.

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