Crisis communications: practice before you preach

The ascent of social and always-on, iterative media require that today's crisis planning undergo more than a minor tune-up.

The ascent of social and always-on, iterative media require that today's crisis planning undergo more than a minor tune-up.

And, predictably, there's no shortage of PR pros talking about how recent events and the public's response to them have shone a spotlight on the importance of crisis planning. A high-profile CEO takes a second medical leave. Oil pours into the Gulf of Mexico. A congresswoman is shot.

Often, following these events, organizations not directly affected by them will declare, “Yup, we have a crisis plan. And it's a masterpiece. We're ready. When's lunch?”

Here's the rub: You can never truly prepare for all contingencies in a crisis, and another organization's pain presents a critical opportunity for learning.

It should cause you to do far more than check to see if you have a plan or make some minor updates. It's an opportunity to examine your own company's level of preparedness through the lens of another difficult experience and consider how you would respond every step of the way as the crisis unfolds.

For agencies, too, here's your moment. It's easy to criticize from afar another company's handling of a crisis. Instead, pull your staff – new and experienced – in for a brainstorming exercise. What would you advise if a fake Twitter handle emerges that many people believe is real during a large oil spill?

It's critical that PR people take these opportunities to think critically and creatively, not only for our own edification, but to help our clients anticipate potential future challenges and plan for them before the next big crisis hits.

While many view social media as exacerbating crises, look at it as an opportunity. Except in immediate, catastrophic events, social media and active community engagement provide a whole network of early warning buoys for those willing to truly listen and engage. In fact, the possibility of needing to communicate quickly when something goes wrong is one of the most important, yet often overlooked, arguments for having a strong presence on social networks in the first place.

You may know what to do or have a plan that is supposed to tell you what to do. But are you practicing and listening enough? Practice won't make you perfect in a crisis – just faster, smarter, and (possibly) less panicked.     

Bryan Scanlon is president of Schwartz Communications.

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