When Crises Come Knocking – Part 1: Planning is Essential

By Tim Johnson

Many experts have written books on crisis management for marketers. I can’t begin to cover the topic in depth but can provide a few examples and tips from clients UPRAISE and my previous agencies have worked with. Over these next four blogs, I will offer these observations.

Readers with additional crisis experience, please chime in!

Now, let’s talk crisis management planning.

Planning is essential because of two factors inherent in any crisis or issue: it’s critical to respond quickly and it’s critical to get the initial messaging right. When your website traffic spikes at 10x the normal rate and you are receiving 100 emails and calls in an hour from media demanding a response is not the time to be crafting messages.

A valuable first step is to create a group within your organization that will act as a steering committee is a crisis or issue occurs. The composition of this committee might vary given the type of event; e.g., if the crisis or issue is employee related, then it certainly should include one or more senior HR people, if it’s product related, it should definitely include one or more senior people that manage the given product. Since any crisis or issue has reputational and legal implications, it should always include the CEO, senior marketing people, and the general counsel.

Related Post: When Crisis Comes Knocking – Part 2: How and When to Respond

No organization can plan for all the possible crises or issues that could happen.

A valuable next step to organizing your company to address crises or issues can be to create a decision tree and apply conditional probability. In this approach, the marketing team identifies potential crises and then runs through a series of subsequent events. A first event might be “Employee X” has falsified accounting records. The subsequent events could be “Employee is terminated” or “Employee is retained”. Results of a conditional probability exercise identify the crises most likely to occur.

Once the marketing team has identified the most likely issues to occur, a few planning basics are in order. Some of the most important ones include:

  • Create criteria for what is a crisis or issue. Not every bump in email traffic deserves a crisis response. A general rule of thumb is that a crisis typically includes three triggers: 1) it has the potential to impact revenues, 2) it has the potential to disrupt the conducting of day-to-day business and 3) it has the potential to harm the organization’s brand. If just one or even two of these triggers occur, the situation may not warrant a crisis response.
  • For each of the top 5-10 crises or issues that you’ve identified most likely to occur, create drawer statements that you can rapidly read or email to media, post on social and/or your website if necessary. The drawer statement should include a few paragraphs that in a general way acknowledges the crisis or issue that has taken place. It should also indicate the management team is actively investigating it.
  • Create a similar statement for employees. Inform that if they receive inquiries to forward these to the steering committee. It is common for media to contact junior employees and ask questions they know senior executives won’t answer.
  • Build a list of key media and other influencers ahead of time. Have this ready in case the steering committee decides to proactively reach out to offer their position on the crisis.
  • Practice, and practice at times that aren’t convenient, because that is when a crisis or issue often occurs. Rotate the type of issue and who on the steering committee convenes the practice. Do this while a major trade show is happening, on a weekend, when the CEO is on vacation, etc.

With a firm planning infrastructure in place, the organization is ready to move on to the next step:  first response. I’ll cover this in my next blog.

Has your company dealt with a crisis? Share how you handled it in a comment below!

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