Published On: July 20, 2023By
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If you’re involved in running a company, then you know things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes, those deviations come knocking at your door in the form of an abrupt and devastating crisis.

Some disgruntled ex-employees might set up an anonymous Instagram account to attack your business. Or maybe a Russian criminal syndicate will hit you up with ransomware. Or perhaps, unbeknownst to you, an employee has been involved in criminal activities while on payroll and people suddenly start to wonder if you knew and why you didn’t act before now.

We don’t know what the crisis will be, but we can be pretty certain that you’ll face something like this at some point. It might be something of your own doing, or it might be the result of an outside force acting on you.

The most resilient companies prepare for crises ahead of time. Most will do some or all of the following:

  • Develop crisis communications and disaster recovery plans.
  • Run regular public relations campaigns to strengthen relationships with key stakeholder groups.
  • Practice issues management to change public opinion and beliefs on certain key macro trends affecting your business.
  • Run regular (annual or bi-annual) tabletop exercises that simulate your company’s response to a crisis.
  • Put company executives through advanced media training so they are ready for the cameras when (not if) they need to face them.

Crisis Communications Plans

When a crisis hits, do you know what you’ll do? What’s the first step? What’s the tenth? Who is making decisions? Who is your spokesperson? How can you determine if it should be your CEO or if a regional VP or manager can handle it?

Here’s the first question to ask: if a crisis hit your organization today, could you get a standby statement out to the public within the first 30 minutes? How about 60? If the answer is “not a chance,” then you need to develop a crisis communications plan, because that’s the standard you should be striving to meet.

Why so fast? Because that’s how fast the news moves today. We’ve seen how quickly people upload videos to social media. We’ve also seen how quickly a single social media post can generate millions of views in a short time.

Having lived through crises with our clients numerous times, we approach them as opportunities to show leadership. They may be incredibly stressful and require you to get through some very uncomfortable days, but crises are also opportunities to demonstrate you are willing to do the right thing.

If you have no plan in place, then you are going to have to create everything from scratch at the exact moment when your organization will be experiencing maximum stress. It’s much, much better to have pre-approved talking points and statement templates ready to go.

Know how you’re going to respond to a crisis, and you’ll be able to deliver much more credible messaging in the early hours. That, by itself, tends to greatly influence public opinion and the media coverage you’ll receive.

Run Regular Public Relations Campaigns

Another key best practice is to run PR campaigns during peaceful times that promote your core values and build strong ties to your key stakeholder groups. Make sure they know who you are and what you represent when times are good, then they’ll be more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt when times are bad.

Your PR campaign might take just about any form. Some of the most common campaigns of this type tend to focus on your connections in the communities you serve. So you may develop and promote a targeted charitable giving campaign.

For example, CN Rail regularly uses paid media to tell the public about how they’re committed to keeping freight traffic moving smoothly across their North American rail networks. They don’t have to do this. A cynical CEO might say, “It’s enough to just execute on our plans. We don’t have to broadcast everything we do.” But that’s assuming people are paying attention during peacetime. They probably aren’t.

Take the time to ensure your company is connecting with your stakeholder groups in meaningful ways. Doing so is like putting deposits into a bank of goodwill that you can withdraw on later when you need it.

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Issues Management

The most important function of many communications departments at large companies is Issues Management. This is a strategic communications discipline that often works hand in hand with your government relations and community relations folks.

There are bound to be certain macro trends that your company either fears or is rooting for. Maybe you’re afraid that an opinion that is critical of your industry might become more mainstream. Or perhaps you’re pressing for new legislation, but you need to gain more public support before politicians are willing to act.

By taking a long-range approach to managing your communications, you can help move public opinion over time in your favour.

We like to remind ourselves from time to time that a primary function of PR is to shape public opinion and change public behaviours. For example, if your organization can benefit from improved boat safety, then invest in campaigns to support that. Or, if you work with new Canadians, then make sure you’re out in public promoting how beneficial it is to our country to accept higher levels of immigration.

You get the idea. The whole point of Issues Management campaigns is to try to shape long-term macro trends in your favour. It takes a long time and a lot of creativity, but it’s also sometimes your best investment.

Tabletop Exercises

Even if you have a crisis communications plan in place, it’s a very good idea to test those plans. A good tabletop exercise will simulate a crisis and allow your organization to walk through its response. It’s like a fire drill for crisis response.

Exercises like this can take as little as a half day or much longer. It all depends on how detailed you want them to be. We find them to be critical in indoctrinating your senior management into your company’s preferred method to respond to serious crises. Everyone gets a chance to experience what they’ll have to do in the event of a real crisis.

These exercises identify gaps that your plans need to address. You might discover that your plan says you need to do something, but your team is actually unable to execute due to other challenges.

Whatever your tabletop discovers, you can be certain your team will be better prepared to handle a real crisis when it comes.

Media Training

Finally, we recommend executive teams periodically put themselves through media training. Speaking to the media is a complex skill. You never want to “wing it” with a media interview. The stakes are too high, and the opportunity (or risk) is too great.

If you want to discuss your organization’s preparedness for a serious crisis, give us a call. We’d be happy to sit down for a complimentary discovery session.