Crisis communication is one of the most important aspects of your crisis management. In fact, whom you communicate with in a crisis, along with when and how you communicate with them, can mean the difference between successful crisis management and crisis management failure. So if this is the case, how can you ensure effective and successful communication with your stakeholders in a crisis?
Following is a play-by-play of what you can – and should – do now, to ensure successful crisis communications in the event of a corporate crisis.
Step 1: Identify your stakeholders
The first step is to identify exactly who your key stakeholders are. In order to do this, begin by asking yourself and your team the following question:
Who, in a crisis, do you need to communicate with in order to minimize the negative reputational impact on your organization?
Odds are, you already know who your stakeholders are. But, if you’re like most of the organizations I’ve worked with, you probably don’t have a complete and tiered list of each of your stakeholder groups, including each stakeholder’s contact information and their relationship “owners” within the organization. Thinking through and producing this list an important first step.
To get the ball rolling, following are some examples of what your stakeholder group list may include:
- Board members
- Counterparties / lenders
- Customers / clients
- Government organizations
- Partner organizations
- Subsidiary brands
- The media
- The general public
Once you have your groups listed out, you’ll want to identify the owners of each of these relationships (for example, your investor relations department owns the relationships with your investors, while HR owns the relationships with your employees, candidates and some vendors, such as recruiters). Once you have the owners identified, you can task them with creating a tiered contact list of each person or entity within their particular stakeholder groups. You should also task them with keeping these lists current and up to date.
Alternatively, if you have a software or program that holds all of your stakeholders’ contact information, find out if there’s a way to tag each stakeholder so that in the heat of the moment you can filter through and print out a tiered list with all of their relevant information – and task your department or business heads with making sure the contact information within these programs is complete and kept current.
This list will not only serve as a crisis communications check list, but it will also serve as a type of insurance for your organization. Let me explain. Different people in different departments have relationships with different stakeholders. Often times, when I conduct this exercise as part of the development of a crisis preparedness program with my clients, I receive the following response: “I know that each member of my department has access to the stakeholders they’re responsible for. Some of them have this information on their phones and others in their heads. So we’re good, we don’t need to create a list.” But the trouble is, what if a member of your team is not reachable in the midst of a crisis? Would the relationships they own be overlooked, forgotten or unaccessible? Keeping a master stakeholder contact list in a safe place (such as a dedicated crisis preparedness drive) will turn out to be one of the most handy tools in your crisis preparedness toolbox.
Step 2: Identify your communications channels
Once you know who you need to communicate with in the event of a crisis, your next step is to figure out how to communicate with them efficiently and effectively.
Social media vs. more traditional means of communicating
What I see often these days is that people tend to have social media on the brain when it comes to crisis communications – and rightfully so. However, although social media is an important channel for crisis communication, only sharing to social media is not enough. Social media is a means to communicate with some key stakeholders, such as the media, the general public and possibly a few others. But the fact is that your organization has some very key stakeholders who you want to be sure to reach and communicate with directly, as these are the people and entities that matter most to your business.
For example, in a major reputational crisis, you may need to call investors directly to ensure that they hear the story straight from you and do not lose trust in your organization and start redeeming their money.
In fact, I have clients that, due to regulatory compliance, cannot use social media at all. And although this presents more of a challenge in their crisis preparedness and crisis communication, what it really means is that they have to ensure that, while their spokesperson is dealing with the external facing world (by answering media inquiries and ensuring that their efforts are being reported to the media) their crisis team is going down their tiered stakeholder list and actively calling and emailing the people and entities that matter most to their business. And this applies to organizations that use social media as well.
The goal is to use your approved talking points and to personally communicate and connect with your stakeholders in a way that is personal, human and authentic – and makes your stakeholders feel important.
Sometimes the need and benefits of doing this can be forgotten due to the ease and habits we all have in using today’s technology, social media included.
However, on the other hand, technology does provide us with unprecedented opportunities for reaching your stakeholders directly in their pockets when communication matters most. For example, BBC News helped manage the crisis of Ebola by leveraging an app that West Africans use in their daily lives. By launching the Whatsapp Ebola Service, BBC was able to reach their target audience directly, in a way that provoked education and two-way communication, and resulted in finally managing the world crisis of Ebola (if you’d like to hear the full story of how BBC managed to do this, click here).
That said, social media is a strong crisis communications tool when:
- You need to reach a large group of people at once
- You want to position your organization as the narrator of the crisis
- You have key stakeholders who actively engage with your organization on dedicated social media platforms
But it’s also important to remember the more traditional ways of communicating and the powerful impact (not to mention sometimes legal obligations) calling or directly emailing your key stakeholders can have. Because ultimately, the goal of crisis communication is to minimize the reputational impact the crisis threatens to have on your brand and to continue to foster and strengthen the trust your stakeholders have in your organization. And what better way to say “I’m sorry” or to communicate effectively, then by picking up the phone and having a real and meaningful conversation with those who matter most to your business?
How to identify the proper communications channels
In order to identify the appropriate crisis communications channels for each of your stakeholders, sit down with leadership and the heads of each department or business unit and answer the following questions:
- Which of your stakeholders (usually tier 1) do you need to communicate with directly?
- What is the best way to communicate with them directly (e.g.: phone, email, etc.)?
- Do you have legal obligations to notify any stakeholders in a particular way – and if so in what types of crisis scenarios? For example, do you have certain key stakeholders that require you to provide them with written notice in a certain type of crisis scenario? Is that written notice to be provided via certified letter or does email suffice? You may want to task legal with revising your agreements, contracts and side letters to find out which scenarios may require specific notification.
- Which channels do you engage your stakeholders on regularly (e.g.: Twitter, Facebook, an investor or internal website, etc.)?
- What apps, platforms and technology do your stakeholders use in their daily lives that may present a unique means of communicating with them directly?
Note: to answer the last two questions, you may want to consult with marketing, PR and/or HR.
Once you have the answers, include them within your crisis preparedness program.
Step 3: Draft and have your crisis communications pre-approved
When you’ve identified the means of communicating with your key stakeholders, the next step in your crisis preparedness is to make your crisis management life easier. Approving communications can often be a long and tedious task. First you have to draft them, then you have to get legal and compliance to approve them, then you need to edit them… And yet in a crisis, you do not have the luxury of spending days – or even hours – drafting and approving your communications.
This is why a big part of your crisis preparedness is to draft and have your crisis communications pre-approved and ready to go. Depending on your organization’s crisis preparedness, there are a couple different ways you can approach this task. I use either one of these options when helping clients develop their crisis preparedness programs, depending on the level of preparedness they’ve hired me to help them implement.
Option 1: Draft and pre-approve your crisis communications at-length
If your crisis preparedness includes developing in-depth crisis management playbooks for several of your highest risk crisis scenarios, then you have the opportunity to think through and draft your stakeholder-specific crisis communications at-length. Here, you can include the holding statements, talking points and official notices to each of your stakeholder groups and have them pre-approved by the appropriate people.
Option 2: Draft your communications in the form of bulleted options
If your crisis preparedness program is to develop a more general crisis management playbook that is not meant to be specific to any one type of crisis scenario, then I recommend thinking through your top five to ten highest-risk crisis scenarios and drafting bulleted options of the different messaging you would want to communicate to your stakeholders in each of these cases.
For example, in the event of a data breach you would want to include the date of the occurrence, what you know at this point in time, a compassionate and reassuring statement, and what you’re currently doing to remedy the situation, amongst other things. So a bulleted list of pre-approved crisis communications may look something like this:
- On [date] CompanyX suffered a data breach of [system / data breached]
- Upon learning of the breach, we immediately [shut down the system / notified the correct authorities / notified the individuals impacted]
- What we know at this time is [high-level details]
- We are currently [working on restoring our systems / working with the authorities]
- CompanyX takes data security extremely seriously and we are doing everything in our power to eradicate the threat and keep our [enter stakeholders] information safe and secure.
- We will provide another update when more information becomes available.
This is a very high-level example, but you get the picture!
Bonus step: Monitor conversations and media reports throughout the crisis
We learned at a young age that effective communication involves listening and this basic rule applies to your crisis communications as well. Monitoring the discussions, activity and news reports around your brand in a crisis will help you communicate even more effectively with your stakeholders. This involves monitoring everything from discussions, questions and inquiries on social media, your customer service lines, emails, the media, Google, etc.
Actively monitoring in a crisis will give you insight into how your stakeholders are feeling towards your organization during and post-crisis. It’ll also help you promptly address any misconceptions, rumors or speculation that can further hurt your reputation.
To do this, ensure your team knows who and what they should be monitoring in the event of a crisis. For example, PR should monitor the media, while customer service and marketing might monitor social media, customer calls, etc., and investor relations will monitor investor inquiries and activity.
Do the work now
Crisis communications is a tricky thing to master. Successful crisis communication requires a lot of thought and preparation. Those who do it well do so because they were prepared, not because they got lucky. So don’t leave it up to chance. Sit down with your organization’s leadership team and begin to think through and implement the above 3 (+1) steps into your crisis preparedness program. Do the work now so that, when a crisis strikes, you can focus on what matters most: communicating effectively and efficiently with those who matter most to your business.
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.