There’s an old saying that “failing to plan is planning to fail.” That is especially true for crisis management and communications.
With this in mind, the most efficient way to handle any crisis is to be prepared ahead of time: be proactive instead of reactive. Here’s what you can do to handle a crisis before, during, and after it occurs.
Step 1: Prepare
First, identify and outline your dedicated response team. Your response team should include someone from your public relations or media team and a legal representative or professional, and it can also include executives and internal lawyers to aid with the situation. Creating contact chains or forums allow you to have quick and efficient contact with this team.
This team is responsible for analyzing the incident, contacting any outside teams necessary, sharing important updates in real time and creating communication streams dedicated to planning the response.
The core group should stay the same from situation to situation, but you should also be prepared to bring in other executives as needed, depending on the nature of the particular crisis. Outline the specifics of how the team will communicate during an incident:
- How will the response teams be notified?
- Where will you post those communications?
- How often will you report publicly?
It's also a good idea to list out all of the constituents that might be impacted, such as customers, employees, partners, or investors.
Every company is different, so your response plans might differ slightly, but you should find these core steps generally effective and simple to tailor. By outlining these ahead of time, you can be sure you and your company will be prepared when a situation actually arises.
Step 2: Respond
Once the response team has evaluated the situation and determined the severity, it’s time for you to conduct a response.
Things in a crisis can escalate quickly, and it can be easy to get caught up in the moment with emotions running high and pressure to resolve the problem. Keep in mind, though, that you have the systems in place to deal with this, so you already have everything that you need.
The most important aspect of the response is to acknowledge the problem head on and not try to hide or downplay the issue. In any type of communication practice, transparency is key. After all, mistakes happen; we’re all human, and we’re all prone to error. But in accepting accountability for mistakes, you can show maturity and humility and reestablish trust.
Remember, too, that when you respond is just as important as how you respond. Reacting in a timely manner displays your commitment to setting things right and makes sure that you aren’t left out of the conversation, leaving stakeholders to come to their own conclusions.
Looking for an example? The New York Times published an opinion piece on Nike not paying their female athletes until they return to competition post-maternity leave. It sparked huge upset among stakeholders because Nike had the reputation of being “pro-female” and supporting women. Nike responded quickly and changed its maternity leave policy. In doing so, it proved that it was willing to adapt and was able to regain its positive reputation.
Step 3: Recover
Once you navigate a crisis, feel free to breathe a sigh of relief. But crisis management isn’t done after the immediate response. Instead, you need to keep monitoring reactions from employees and stakeholders:
- Are they receiving your communications positively? Then your response team succeeded.
- Are you noticing lingering negative responses? Then your response team needs to reassess its strategy as quickly and efficiently as possible. Address the problem, adjust the response, and tailor your future strategies accordingly.
Share your findings with the people involved. Keeping an open loop of communication allows for higher transparency and established trust between colleagues, and analyzing the reaction to your company’s response allows you to monitor overall perception and measure your success. Get employee feedback and be transparent about how it affects your decisions.
As part of your recovery process, go back to the first step in this cycle: preparation. Take everything that you’ve learned during one crisis and use it to refine your plans moving forward.
Director of Public Agency Services
Samantha Marquez is a community relations and engagement specialist with over six years of experience in legislative affairs and targeted policy messaging on the local and state level. Before coming to Presidio, Samantha served as the District Director to the Majority Leader of the California State Assembly, where she served as a liaison between local public agencies and the state government. In the Assembly, Samantha was the Majority Leader’s principal aide for K-12 education and transportation.
Sarah Kacmarsky is a 2020 graduate from Cal Poly Pomona with a B.S. in Public Relations. She is passionate about serving the community around her through outreach and creative campaigns.