The Only Real Crisis? If You’re Not Prepared for a Crisis.

Disclaimer: in my book, crisis communications is not about lying or covering these things up. It’s about being transparent, skilled, forward-thinking, and public. If that is unsettling to you, please read on.

You can define the drama – whatever it may be – whenever it may come. Things never just go away. If you think like that, often they will come back later, bigger and badder, or with a completely different spin. You may learn how to react to and control the message, but the good audience you build before the crisis also helps to define your success. The brand development you put in place before the crisis gives you a strong platform. If people already know you as a good listener, able to empathize – and you’re genuine about that – then the cat’s almost in the bag. Everything you do BEFORE the crisis is critical for when it hits.

However, let’s be clear – you can mitigate a crisis, but you cannot undo it. This is where public relations gets a bad wrap: the communications types who try to use crisis communication to gloss over details, provide “alternative facts”, or stay high up in the ivory tower. The advice and opinions in this blog post are not in support of that – it’s hard to own up to your mistakes, but if you do so with transparency and forward-thinking solutions, you will understand the meaning of a phoenix.

Ubering from Crisis to Crisis

So for a whole year, Uber didn’t let anyone know that 57 million users’ data were compromised. That means while you were worrying about Equifax hackers, you should have been worried about Uber hackers too. And what else don’t we know about? Do you feel some distrust in Uber? Equifax? For sure, they have tried to appeal through empathy with well-crafted statements and good solutions such as free credit report access, but what’s your rating on their moral, ethical standing? Hiring Bozoma Saint John may have been a good internal reaction to Uber’s equal employment and harassment issues, but they can’t keep putting all the problems on Bozoma’s shoulders (which they do, though I am not sure if she has any limits in her talent).

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What should they have done? In Uber’s case, coming out right away, instead of one year later, would have been the right move. Before it hit? They continuously fail at customer communication; the window into Uber’s phone, chat, and email is foggy at best. This makes them seem unreachable, careless. Fixing that from Day 1 of their existence woud have built more trust with their users. And clearly, investing in the security of their people and products should have happened on Day 1 too. It was clear – the old leadership there didn’t want to deal with crisis situations.

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For Equifax, the messaging was bland and soulless. Does this company have a voice, distinct from others? Seems not. Some time to develop their character more, and answer some questions like “why do you matter?” or “what makes you different from other credit reporting agencies?” would have been easy and brilliant leading into this situation. More and more, companies are going to have to find better ways to deal with customer data and how they are protecting it.

The good news: you can be prepared to survive and recover, maybe even prosper, from the next crisis event, by completing or improving the things on your rainy day public relations checklist! And by doing so, you’ll create an arsenal of skills and materials that can be applied elsewhere in your work. Involve your leadership, talk to your co-workers in all areas – everyone’s opinion is valid and meaningful. You can’t hide out in the ivory tower forever… (picking up on the mantra?).

Fingers in Ears

Copyright Jason E. Ballmann (2017). Yep, I draw as well as a 8-year-old. Also yeah you can use this cartoon if it responds to you, just put the first sentence of this paragraph near it.

Before you go on reading…

The following are some great tips for you, and also some approaches and new ways of thinking. You might hate them. You might like them. Is this comprehensive? No, but it’s the basics.

Before the Crisis: A Checklist

– Listening

Assign major value to media intelligence platforms, and dedicate serious time. As a communicator, I’ll be the first to tell you that you should operate as your brand or entity’s worst enemy. Drinking the Kool-Aid will only you make you bad at your job, and your leadership should understand that sentiment with a heavy heart. Find all the negative about your brand. Turn that in to your product/service development people and follow the solutions step-by-step. You are the brand; you must be involved at every meeting you possibly can be in.

*Steps off soap box*

For traditional media monitoring, I’ve always liked Critical Mention to cover radio, tv, and online news. It’s fast, comprehensive, and the reports look nice. Plus, intuitive and easy to use. IQ Media and Cision do a great job too, though IQ media only tracks tv and print (online too), no radio. Cision is just pricy.

For social media monitoring, Social Studio is an expensive behemoth, but worth it if you can afford it. HootSuite and Buffer offer some listening capabilities, and other tools like TweetReach and Keyhole are geared toward more specific platforms.

You can’t go wrong with any of this stuff, as long as you stay consistent and encompassing in your listening. Really, a good 15 minutes in the morning and the afternoon ought to help keep the crises at bay.

– Resource Building

You should have headshots and bios of your key staff, and your company’s logo in vector format, ready and updated at any time. Just a few quick emails to complete that task. Need a photographer? An iPhone 8+ might surprise you if you choose “Portrait” mode.

Fact sheets and FAQs, however, are a different story. What reporter has ever said, “I can’t wait to read your fact sheet.” We all hate these, don’t we? But if you keep it online in a digital format, you have something on hand at all times that can be easily updated and grown over time. And you can track data on that pages’ visits with Google Analytics for any inferences on how to improve it. People use these things, they just don’t always remember or appreciate them. Oh, and – people do use your fact sheets at some point, whether they admit it or not, remember it or not.

Internal talking points: spend some time mentally thinking about these, approaching from various angles and times of day. Think about how different reporters you know might react to hearing them as you write it all up. Talk them out with co-workers. Then, you can write them down. Be tedious. Record yourself and others saying them. Play it back. See if the words work.

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– Training

A monthly or quarterly communications training for your key staff members is essential and will be valued. Remember to video conference it for those who aren’t in the office that day or work in a different office altogether (and whip it to make sure people stay on video with you). Your first one should pose the question: “What all do you need the most help with?” And go from there.

Along the journey, increase and decrease the pressure – play “snarky reporter” or “nice reporter” – and make sure people take breaks in the trainings. Remind them frequently they are in control, because they are, even in real-life media interviews. Get some partners involved too, perhaps – a multi-organizational training just means better collaboration for everyone.

Why do all this? This is your army.

(Bring in some fellow trainers too, if you want to really mix it up.)

– Networking

Find some journalists and other communicators to network with – you’ll learn a lot from them, and they’ll want to learn a lot from you. Yeah we’re all busy, but a 30 minute coffee meeting should be something people can fit in at some point in the next couple months.

LinkedIn can be a great way to find reporters in your area, and ofcourse big media intelligence platforms offer you the ability to search for those who cover your area or topic. I also find that phone calls work well with journalists who are inundated with emails. Even texts. These people’s job is to write the truth and do it well, extend your hand to a profession that’s suffering from some serious, unfounded, illegal attacks right now.

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As you go around these events, think about a couple pitches to prepare ahead of time, but also be mindful that many may have stories already in mind and might want to sit down with you to fill in any missing holes. Or, they may just appreciate a connection you have, or an online educational resource you can recommend. Focus on what you can offer.

All of this groundwork will help make sure your media interactions are respected, meaningful, and valued. An ivory tower mindset, where you only come out to yell news down the valley, will just get lost in the hills (there’s that mantra again). And look, perhaps you will one day represent or have to speak for something “bad”.

Last thing I’ll say about this: media are great people, they are the best friends of democracy. Value them, cherish them – think like them. And pay for your subscriptions to help them.

– Worrying

Keep a note somewhere where you log all potential crises for your organization. This keeps you on your feet, and lets you deal with things as something to accomplish, not as something that only exists in your mind. You can also use these in the media trainings with staff. The scenarios that always feel the most irrelevant or under-appreciated are the ones you need to harp on; remind your staff that it’s the most uncommon or irregular that people trip over, and that’s the stuff we need to practice. And remember – you are the brand, you may mitigate a lot of these theoreticals by working with your various teams around you to solve product failures, provide HR training, or clean up your public-facing website.

This anxiety can be your friend, but be careful that it does not manifest within you. The project here should be treated as a cold, analytical process, not as a cornucopia of fearful possibilities that could wake you up in the middle of the night. You would be doing this because you are a professional who cares about the safety and well-being of your organization, and you know that a little speculation never did anyone harm.

– Drilling

When was the last time you put together a punchlist of action time items? Did you ever drill it? It takes time, people, and money to get ready for a press conference, put out a news release, or set up a call tree for interviews. At least once a year, drill the press conference set up – see how long it takes you to get the step-and-repeat assembled, the lights arranged, the experts ready, the release printed, the chairs and tables organized, and more. Address any pitfalls, and have back-ups of everything you possibly can. Something will go wrong – but what’s the other mantra here? Be prepared.

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Once you have all of this set, you’re ready for the clouds to roll in – just make sure you hear the thunder in the distance first.

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