OP-ED: Preparing a crisis comms checklist

In today's world - where protest groups, single-interest organizations, NGOs, and class-action trial lawyers have all become part of the business landscape - a litigation and crisis communications plan has become an essential tool of survival.

In today's world - where protest groups, single-interest organizations, NGOs, and class-action trial lawyers have all become part of the business landscape - a litigation and crisis communications plan has become an essential tool of survival.

That's because safeguarding your company's reputation and product brands in an increasingly hostile and ever-present media-linked environment can sometimes be reduced to how well and how quickly you react in a crisis. And none of us is talented enough to rely only on our reflexes when the crisis hits. To ensure survival and maintain your marketing advantage, even modest-sized companies must have a sound ready-to-implement crisis communications plan. How well is your company prepared for the next crisis or public litigation? When was the last time your team reviewed your existing crisis plan? Are you wisely using your "peace time" to prepare for the inevitable conflicts that erupt at some time in the life of any company? As you consider these questions, here are some critical control points to keep in mind as you prepare or revise your program:
  • Identify members of your company's crisis and litigation communications team. As a start, your team should include your corporate legal counsel, chief communications officer, head of human resources, chief of marketing, and - this is often essential to prevent corporate myopia - an outside crisis communications expert. Appoint a team leader who is broad-minded and detail-oriented. Other participants should be added, as appropriate to your company. For example, the head of the science and regulatory affairs. If at all possible, the CEO should be part of at least the initial meeting and stay involved in the process via regular reports.
  • Have your team prepare a list of predictable crises that might endanger your company. The list can begin with something as simple as an electrical power outage, labor dispute, or hostile takeover. Then make another list of unpredictable events, including items like an SEC investigation, executive kidnapping, product tampering, terrorism, or a plant explosion. Think deeply and identify what your weak spots would be if such events occurred.
  • After identifying all possible crises, your team should determine how it would deal with your worst corporate nightmares. Identify your strongest, most succinct messages and eliminate actions and statements that would be inappropriate for any reason.
  • Map and track all the key players in a potential crisis. Set up a system to monitor the activities of potential foes through a careful scouring of the news media, the internet, and key contacts in the field. At the same time, establish and nurture strong relationships with possible allies who can defend you as credible third parties.
  • Create your company's crisis manual and write support materials, such as talking points, white papers, and checklists, that can be easily edited to suit special situations. Set up a schedule and assign team members to review them on a periodic basis.
  • Consider updating your internet capabilities and establishing a dedicated "dark" website that can be activated quickly in the event of a crisis. Make sure that your IT team understands its role and is ready to work with you.
  • Be trained to talk with the news media. If you and your team have already been trained, participate in a refresher course. This sort of training is not only useful when dealing directly with print and broadcast reporters, but, if you have the right trainer, it will help you better understand what motivates reporters who are facing deadline pressure. A special word of advice here: Be sure that at least one of the people providing your training has been a journalist during part of his or her career. You need advanced training from someone who's been battle-hardened from the other side of crises. And if a crisis is likely to garner the attention of television, make sure you have a former TV reporter on your team. The rules are different for television and require different talent.
  • Usually, the CEO shouldn't be the lead spokesperson. But in the worst crises, the news media and your customers need to be reassured that the situation has the full attention of the boss. Anything less and you're risking intense media criticism and customer distrust. Of course, other corporate spokespeople, especially experts, must be ready to speak out during a crisis, and they can take the lead if events are less than catastrophic.
  • Obtain internal buy-in and true commitment from your staff. In a pinch, nothing may be more important to your company than an effective crisis plan. Of course, there's much more to being thoroughly prepared for a communications crisis than the critical control points we have outlined here. But these basic steps should give you an understanding of what you need to know to get started.
  • Gene Grabowski is VP of Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications.

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