In this third edition of our introductory Crisis Communications series, we examine some of the common challenges faced with crisis planning, and what you can do to overcome them.
Creating a crisis management plan can be among the hardest tasks a communications team has to perform. Not only because the risks are so high – potentially including everything from reputational damage to loss of human life – but because it’s impossible to create a detailed plan before knowing exactly what you’re planning for.
Faced with these challenges, many a good communications team has preferred to go ostrich, burying their heads in the sand until an event has forced them out. But if we’ve learned anything from BP, Virginia Tech, Lance Armstrong and – most recently – Dreamworld, it’s that leaving crisis planning until the last minute is probably the worst plan of all.
As with anything, the first step towards improvement is acknowledging what it is you’re facing. By recognising the five most common challenges of crisis communications, you can then start to overcome them, one by one.
“When the information you’re distributing carries such high stakes for your business, you need to direct it through multiple channels, thinking about which ones are most likely to be seen first.”
1. Too Much Information
Often, when emergency strikes, the floodgates of communication swing open. It is common for high-level management (or whoever is responsible for crisis comms within your organisation) to become overwhelmed with the amount of information flying at them from all angles.
And it’s not just the quantity of information that can be problematic. It’s also the quality. Before the proverbial dust clears, it’s easy for emergencies to become accidental games of Chinese whispers. With the clock ticking, and high volumes of conflicting reports muddying your vision, it’s just as easy to miss the thread of truth that (hopefully) runs through these messages.
To mitigate the chances of information wipe-out, it helps to think in advance about how you’ll get your information, and who you’ll be getting it from. With the right technology in place, you can establish a centralised dashboard where, when crisis occurs, all of your relevant stakeholders can report on and monitor the situation in real time. And once you’ve got the right people all in one place, it becomes easier to find and follow that golden thread of truth.
2. Too Little Information
It’s the Catch-22 of crises: when you don’t have too much information, you have too little. Even in day-to-day business communications, reliance on just one channel can lead to trouble. But in crisis, the importance of real-time visibility becomes a hurdle you don’t want to stumble over.
We live in a connected world, and there’s no longer any excuse for relying exclusively on email to get information out. Particularly when the information you’re distributing carries such high stakes for your business, you need to direct it through multiple channels, thinking about which ones are most likely to be seen first. In the vast majority of cases, SMS will win the race.
For instant, multi-channel distribution, modern communications software is your hero on a white horse. If you’ve integrated the right software into your communications strategy in advance, you can send out your message in bulk, through multiple channels, at the literal click of a button.
3. No Contact Data
But what use is instant, multi-channel messaging if you don’t have anyone to send it to? Contacts are one of the easiest things to plan before a crisis, because all of the important stakeholders are known well in advance of an emergency situation. For most companies, the main challenge has to do with properly storing their details.
The days of paper address books are over. These days, most organisations will have their contacts stored digitally. But many will not have them stored all in one place – or in the right place, for that matter. And the fact that not all stakeholders will be relevant to all crisis situations only compounds the challenge.
By ensuring that your contact list is easily accessible and contactable in advance of an emergency, you save yourself a lot of time wasted in back-and-forthing. Better, by storing them in a system which allows you to group them dynamically and according to category, you can segment your contact list so that the right people can be contacted from a single place in seconds, rather than you having to filter through your entire list manually .
4. Unpredictable Situations
By its very nature, a crisis is hard to plan for. You don’t know when they’re coming, or what they’re going to be, but you know they’re always there, looming like a dark cloud in your potential future. Which leads to the second Catch-22 of crisis planning: it’s difficult to plan a message without knowing in advance what your next crisis might be. But when the crisis comes, it’s just as difficult to write considered communications in an atmosphere of high pressure and confusion.
So, then, what’s a company to do? Shut its eyes and hope the problem goes away? Unfortunately, that plan is unlikely to work out. But while you can’t put on your psychic lenses and draft a comprehensive report for the next incident, you can spend some time working out what kinds of crisis your company is likely to face, based on industry and your company’s history.
Once these categories of potential crisis have been identified (for an airline, for instance, these would include flight delays and crashes) you can start to draft generic holding messages for each. Although these templates won’t contain the specifics of the event which has not yet occurred, they will provide frameworks into which you can add specifics when you know them, thereby limiting the opportunity for errors.
5. No Visibility
It’s one thing to have a message prepared, and quite another to know what’s happened to it after you’ve hit send. Unfortunately, it’s not enough in crisis communications to have an up-to-date contact list and message templates sitting ready for deployment. Fast action depends on the right people opening the message in time, and on you being aware that they’ve opened it. And if they haven’t, it’s no good sitting around blindly awaiting a response.
With the right communications technology set up in advance of a crisis, you’ll be able to monitor who has received your message and who has not with real-time tracking software. And if a key stakeholder either hasn’t received a message, or has opened it but not responded, you’ll be able to escalate your actions immediately, without wasting any time.
When crisis strikes, time becomes your most precious resource. And by utilising the myriad tools that modern communications technology puts at your disposal, you can ensure it’s on your side when the unexpected occurs.