10 Steps to Prepare Your Brand for a Crisis
When we sat down to proactively create strategic brand plans for 2020, I did not include global pandemic that would grind the world economy to a halt. I also did not have a line item for watching Tiger King on Netflix. So I realize that it is not possible to prepare for everything, but you do want to be as prepared as possible for any crisis that might come your way.
“Prepare for a crisis”. Ha. How could you possibly have prepared for a global event of this magnitude? Sure, some people might have realized when the news started coming out of China in January that the sh*t was about to hit the fan. But I don’t think most companies planned for Covid-19. Usually, crisis communications plans are prepared for when your product has to be recalled or an employee posts something scandalous on social media, or maybe there is a safety accident that affects the lives of your employees or neighboring citizens. But a global pandemic? Nope, that’s a first.
But there is no time like the present to get your plan prepared for the next crisis that might be heading towards us.
1. Assemble a crisis team
Determine who should be on your crisis team. This would be a small group of senior executives that represent the areas of the company that need to be most prepared. Ideally, the organization’s CEO will lead the team, with the firm’s top public relations executive and legal counsel as his or her chief advisers. If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, you should retain an agency or independent consultant with that specialty. Other team members are typically the heads of your major organizational divisions, as any situation that rises to the level of being a crisis will affect your entire organization. And sometimes, the team also needs to include those with special knowledge related to the current crisis, e.g., subject-specific experts.
2. What’s your Crisis?
To be proactive and prepare for any and all crises, you should gather your Crisis Communications Team for intensive brainstorming sessions on all the potential crises that could occur at your organization. By doing this, you may realize that some of the situations are preventable by simply modifying existing methods of operation. Look at it from every angle. What are your best-case/worst-case scenarios, etc? Better now than when under the pressure of an actual crisis. In some cases, of course, you know a crisis will occur because you’re planning to create it — e.g., to lay off employees, or to make a major acquisition.
3. Crisis Response Plan
This assessment process should lead to creating a Crisis Response Plan that is an exact fit for your organization, one that includes both operational and communications components. Identify every possible crisis and outline a step by step process for what could happen, what the fallout could be, who should be notified, and what systems will be activated accordingly.
4. Identify and Train Spokespeople
No matter how great someone is at public speaking, they need to really be prepared for being a spokesperson during a crisis. Message training, appropriate responses, utilizing proactive PR tactics, promoting the organization, and preserving the organization are all very difficult today when standing behind a podium with lots of angry reporters shouting questions and demanding answers. Even pro athletes continue to practice, train, and workout once they get to the big leagues. All stakeholders, internal and external, are just as capable of misunderstanding or misinterpreting information about your organization as the media. It’s your responsibility to minimize the chance of that happening.
5. Establish Monitoring and Notification Systems
At the very least, you need to set up Google Alerts for your company, products, services, and stakeholders to know when there is a mention online. A paid monitoring service would be even better to make sure you know, before the media, about what has just happened. Once there is an incident, you need to be able to quickly contact everyone involved. It might be so basic as a contact list with every stakeholder’s email and cell, or it could be as robust as group Instant Messenger. When it comes down to it, you need to know in advance how to reach everyone on the crisis team because most situations don’t occur at noon on a Wednesday.
6. Identify and Know Your Stakeholders
Who are the internal and external stakeholders that matter to your organization? I consider employees to be your most important audience, because every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organization whether you want them to be or not! But, ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking about you to others not on your contact list, so it’s up to you to ensure that they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere.
7. Develop Holding Statements
While full message development must await the outbreak of an actual crisis, “holding statements,” messages designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks, can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios to which the organization is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment you conducted in Step 1 of this process. An example of holding statements by a hotel chain with properties hit by a natural disaster, before the organization’s headquarters has any hard factual information, might be:
“We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of our guests and staff.”
“Our thoughts are with those who were in harm’s way, and we hope that they are well.”
“We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website.”
The organization’s Crisis Communications Team should regularly review holding statements to determine if they require revision and/or whether statements for other scenarios should be developed.
8. Assess the Crisis Situation
Reacting without adequate information is a classic “shoot first and ask questions afterwards” situation in which you could be the primary victim. However, if you’ve done all of the above first, it’s a “simple” matter of having the Crisis Communications Team on the receiving end of information coming in from your team members, ensuring the right type of information is being provided so you can proceed with determining the appropriate response.
9. Finalize and Adapt Key Messages
With holding statements available as a starting point, the Crisis Communications Team must continue developing the crisis-specific messages required for any given situation. The team already knows, categorically, what type of information its stakeholders are looking for. What should those stakeholders know about this crisis? Keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages that go to all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders. You’ll need to adapt your messaging to different forms of media as well. For example, crisis messaging on Twitter often relies on sharing links to an outside page where a longer message is displayed, a must because of the platform’s 140 character limit.
10. Post-Crisis Analysis
A formal analysis of what was done right, what was done wrong, what could be done better next time, and how to improve various elements of crisis preparedness is another must-do activity for any Crisis Communications Team. I have developed a formal process for accomplishing this, but even a solid in-house brainstorming session can do the job.
“It Can’t Happen To Us”
The inclination is to think that your organization is special and won’t be affected by a crisis, but take a look at the Global Pandemic that is Covid-19. No one is exempt. It’s better to be prepared to make sure you can weather the storm.
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