Crisis comms: The power of preparedness

Time is of the essence, they say. I don't know who 'they' are, but 'they' may well have worked in PR; a sector that has had crisis response and issues management at its foundation since it began, says Four Consulting's Alun James.

In a crisis you need time, clarity, evidence and friends, writes Alun James
In a crisis you need time, clarity, evidence and friends, writes Alun James
The evolution of communications, however, has resulted in ‘crisis’ becoming compartmentalised as a package of offerings; media training, scenario planning, simulation exercises and content preparation based on messaging and Q&As.

Cue the 'headache tablet' approach – pop a few and the pain will go away. We all know, however, that prevention is better than cure, so what steps can be taken ahead of time to help mitigate and manage a crisis?

Sounds obvious, but work out what you will first need when a crisis hits. Most people would say more time, clarity, evidence and friends.

A crisis is fluid, evolving and fast-moving. The advent of social media and 24-hour news has reduced response times even further. This can be overwhelming, particular when considering your crisis response, from gathering arguments, informing stakeholders and employees, to assessing legal implications and evaluating business implications. It’s self-evident that preparedness will buy valuable time, as a great deal of the thinking has been done, and sufficient response processes put in place. 

Ensure basic arguments and messaging are distilled via sufficient stress-testing. For some, particularly marketing professionals, this can be a brand challenge requiring resistance against the urge to be expansive and reduce messages, and in turn park straplines and brand values. Then consider delivery. Anyone who has undergone media training knows there is no substitute for practice. It’s about training and practice – with a focus on understanding the media and conveying information in the most effective way.

Every message, statement or point needs to be provable, supportable and (preferably) endorsed by a third party. Audits are a great way of assessing preparedness and ensuring facts and information is thorough and wide-ranging:

        Are the right policies and procedures in place for all eventualities?

        Are there sufficient levels of communications with employees?

        Is there adequate training, as well as quality management and appraisals?

       Are evaluation methods in place?

        What do audiences, suppliers and stakeholders currently think?

Third-party endorsement – direct or indirect – is much more powerful than first-person claims. This can be from relevant associations, professional bodies, regulatory bodies and suppliers, or partners such as charities, responsible business organisations and CSR partners. The latter help provide a broader perspective and play an important role in the reputation rebuilding process. Ultimately, the company you keep needs thinking through and planning ahead of time to enable your response to be both deep and broad.

Often overlooked, pre-planning must consider a fundamental question: how does the organisation want to be seen in its response to a crisis? Providing the bare minimum to abide by legalities and confidentiality requirements or going the extra mile and demonstrating concern through palpable action and follow-up? 

In short, better preparedness generates more of what is needed in a crisis, producing a greater sense of control and calm.  
Alun James is managing director of Four Consulting

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