A business crisis can happen to anyone at anytime. Be prepared before it happens to you.
— June 17th, 2019
Typically, crises seem to occur out of nowhere. We don’t know when they’ll hit, even if some warning signs seem obvious in hindsight.
This unpredictability — coupled with the pressure to solve the problem yesterday — can result in poor, hasty choices with disastrous results.
That’s why it’s absolutely crucial that your company has a game plan to avoid disasters before a crisis occurs.
In a specially commissioned guide for Poppulo, Rob Shimmin - who is an enthusiastic amateur pilot as well as being a highly regarded communications coach - highlights what business can learn from how pilots prepare in advance for any crisis they might face.
Pilots are trained to respond to crises, constantly practicing for worst-case scenarios so they can be prepared under pressure, employee communication professionals should run through various worst-case scenarios to help protect their company.
Disbelief Slows You Down
A typical response when a crisis hits is disbelief. Leaders may express the hope that “maybe this isn’t so bad” or “maybe it’ll die down on its own.”
The wait-and-see approach may actually prove effective every so often, but the problem with this tactic is that when it doesn’t work, it costs you vital reaction time.
If you wait for a problem to resolve on its own and it doesn’t, the damage incurred will be much greater than if you had acted quickly.
So, be proactive and take steps to fix the crisis before it gets out of hand.
Three-Step Plan for Reacting to Any Crisis
Regardless of whether you’re dealing with a failed product launch, a social media snafu, mismanagement, or a different type of crisis altogether, there are three important steps your business will need to take to start to set things right.
When a crisis occurs, there’s immediate pressure to communicate, even before you know what to share. The company will want to establish itself as the source of information about what’s happening.
This is motivated by the (not unreasonable) fear that if the company waits too long to communicate, others will fill the void and become the go-to source of information for the media, consumers, and others.
So, the best way to balance the need to communicate and the constraint of lacking a codified message is to have expert communicators and spokespeople who can convey tone with little information.
Employee communications teams can use this same strategy to convey to internal stakeholders a sense of responsiveness, competence, and optimism about the future even before they have plans or news to share.
The next step is to navigate, to figure out what you’re going to do and where you want to go. As leaders try to formulate a plan to respond to the crisis, they’ll typically bring in extra sets of eyes to get the perspective of all stakeholders and to ensure that they make the right decisions for the company. They’ll also be looking to balance immediate operational needs with the long-term reputation of the company.
Internal communicators must also figure out how they will navigate during the crisis. You have the opportunity and the responsibility to represent the perspective of the employee stakeholder group to management. As leaders are formulating plans, check that those plans include employees—and if they don’t, remind leaders that employees are an important audience and resource in a crisis.
Think of this step as flying the plane — or, if you’re not a pilot like Rob, keeping the business running. Business continuity is crucial to recovery, both financially and in terms of the company’s reputation.
Just as you help shape the messaging around a new product or a change campaign, you can help shape employees’ response to the crisis.
Use your internal messaging to reassure employees, answer their questions, and help them move on from the crisis to redirect them to the work at hand.
By helping them feel like they have a stake in a company with a strong future, you’ll help employees be more productive, which will help the company recover.
Tips for Involving employee communicators in the Recovery
Rob offered some additional tips for how communication teams can play a part in a company’s crisis management response.
Just as pilots constantly anticipate trouble spots, internal comms teams can also be alert to any potential trouble and be formulating plans to address issues before they occur.
Trust your instincts; if a campaign seems confusing, dated, or offensive—or if you see other tell-tale signs of trouble—bring these concerns to management.
Ideally, the board and the company’s lawyers should define up to 70 percent of the decisions to take during a crisis before anything goes wrong.
The goal is to create a plan ahead of time to increase response speed during an actual crisis. Do what you can to encourage leadership to invest time in these efforts—and to share the plans with your comms team as much as possible so you can be ready to respond to employees.
You can also use data and analytics about your company’s employees to teach the board how employees are likely to respond based on their demographics, response to past campaigns, and engagement levels.
Accept that there's going to be some damage, but protect the company’s reputation. One way you can do this is by helping employees feel like they have a stake in the company.
If they feel positive about the company, supportive of its actions, and protective of its reputation, they will be more productive and effective.
Finally, gather knowledge before a crisis happens. Read about other companies’ crises and what steps their EC teams took that helped (or hindered) recovery. All the data you gather will be necessary to shape your own plans. Then, after a crisis, share your own lessons learned within your company and to external teams as well.
If you’re in a crisis, especially in this modern era of social media and endless commentary, it may feel like the whole world is watching your response. But remember—companies are expected to go through difficult periods. It’s the quality and tone of your response that will differentiate you from your peers and potentially help you emerge even stronger than before.