L. Darryl Armstrong
8 Keys to successfully communicating in a crisis
Whether they are natural disasters, massive power outages, water line breaks, work stoppage, riots or robberies, or executive and financial corruption, a crisis can happen at any time and any place. All crisis can and will disrupt your normal flow of business. When there is a change in your day-to-day business, communication is critical.
Your response to a crisis must be swift and all communications clear and ongoing until the event is resolved. These are some of the lessons learned from my 40 years of preventing and when necessary, managing them.
All crises result in volumes of requests and inquiries from many different people.
Whether it is man-made or natural, when the crisis hits there will be a volume of questions from your customers, suppliers, government officials, family members and the media. This can and most likely will overwhelm you if you are not prepared. Inquiries come from those directly involved in the event and from their families, regulators, shareholders, business partners and others. You must provide answers; in today’s world of social media, any event, not matter how small, can quickly become very big.
Major events create major communications challenges.
When events impact things outside of your company walls, the communications infrastructure including the Internet, telephone, the Short-Message-Services (SMS), etc. will be impacted. This will create challenges beyond your normal operations. When planning for a crisis, always expect that many of the venues for communicating may be down or out of operation and consider what your alternatives are. As we saw during the major ice storm a few years ago, normal cell phone communications were interrupted; however, SMS text messaging was available. Be prepared to adjust your communications by considering what you will do if the power grid goes down or the Internet is not working.
Consider how you can use all communications channels.
It is vitally important to consider every venue for getting your message out and feedback as quickly as possible during a crisis. Practice these optional communications before a crisis occurs. Many organizations are now relying on SMS text messaging during regional events, yet it has limitations that might not make it the best option. By its very nature SMS is designed to carry short messages. The length of that message will be determined by the carrier company you use. If those messages are longer than the company allows, they will be broken into smaller messages and transmitted randomly. Different stakeholders prefer to receive messages in different ways while some prefer text, others prefer voicemail.
Have a plan to communicate with employees.
Keeping your employees informed during a crisis and after is critical. A critical piece of any business continuity plan is how to deliver emergency notifications. The first emergency notification should go to your employees. Keep them informed on a regular basis and you will build trust, credibility, and loyalty and demonstrate that you care about them. Use basic message mapping (we will discuss this in a future column) and ensure your organization’s key values and principles are in everything you transmit. All information shared by you will be shared as well by the employees. Expect this and understand they can be a valuable asset in getting the story out you want to get out. Many employees will by chain of command make direct contact with your managers. It is essential that all management is kept in the loop and fully briefed along with any executives.
Communicating with employees’ families is critical.
The families of all employees will expect you as the business owner to know what is going on. After the 9/11 terror event and Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, to name just a few, many families were disappointed that the companies really knew nothing. Many business didn’t even log incoming calls for follow-up. Companies can make better use of technology today to handle such situations if they plan in advance and practice their plan. Consider, for example, what you are using to track your employees right now. Do you have an electronic badge system for your employees, time cards or do they have to sign in? If not, consider all these alternatives. All such approaches can contribute to a database to help you determine who might be in a dangerous situation.
It is essential to be proactive.
In a crisis, if you have a database established for employees and their families, immediately reach out to them rather than waiting for them to call you. In advance gather contact information for family or next of kin and keep it on file and up-to-date. Do it now. Even if you don’t have a great deal to say at first and most likely you will not, let family members know what you have and share it. Keep them updated and posted at every step.
Provide accurate information.
Share the information you can verify and validate. Equally important is to tell people what you don’t know. With social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text messaging) the news within seconds will hit the streets and certainly within 15 minutes. You will not have much time to prepare. If possible get trusted “eyes and ears” on the ground to be your source. Share only reliable information that you gather from trusted sources. If EMTs tell you they have taken a specific number of victims to two hospitals, share that fact. They are a reliable source. Then call the hospitals or even better get your observers to those hospitals to gather the information for you. In advance, develop contacts with fire departments, police departments, EMTs and related emergency personnel. Be sure to get to know the public information officers at each of these departments. You will then be able to call on those contacts for reliable information.
Transmit accurate and verified information as quickly as possible.
Once you have reliable, verified and accurate information from trusted sources, get those messages out to all your stakeholders as quickly as possible. Use traditional and social media and your phone banks, email systems, SMS systems, all the venues you have decided upon and practiced in advance. In your preplanning and practice consider all the possible crisis or emergencies that could occur and outline your pre-determined responses. Each of these possible crisis or emergencies should have media holding statements pre-approved by top management and readily available for use in the first 15 minutes of the event. Adapt these messages as needed and using a traditional message map approach is recommended. If you have done a thorough risk assessment, this will facilitate the process. Plan and exercise (at least a table-top exercise) so that all the decision-makers will work with you in the release of information without any undue delay.
Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong is a crisis and emergency communications and management consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-340-2206.