Really solid advice, Alex. As a media trainer who runs such crisis sessions, I would just say that one trained spokesperson is never enough. If crisis hits, Murphy's Law suggests that he/she will be on vacation, or at a conference in Zurich, or just resigned from the firm, or whatever. Always have a couple of media-savvy backups!
You know those nagging fears about your company that keep you up at night? That your website will crash, that your co-founder will be arrested for public intoxication, or that your product will be demoed by a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and—deep breath—not work? Or worse—that you’ll wake up one day to a lawsuit over something you weren’t even aware of?
Unfortunately, those fears are not always entirely unfounded. As you develop, launch, and nurture your brand, chances are you’ll face a crisis of some sort—and probably more than one. And while it may be exactly what you feared, it may also be an issue you never saw coming.
But as Winston Churchill put it, “Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.” By having a comprehensive action plan in place, you can be prepared to combat any crisis that comes your way. Here are a few to-dos to get you started thinking about how to handle crisis communications.
In the event of a crisis, the first step is to alert your colleagues—and fast. Depending on how your team operates, this can be done through a group email, individual phone calls, or even (should you wish to take it old school) a “call tree,” where every team member is responsible for alerting another member of the team. Whichever you decide, make sure each person knows how he or she will be contacted (or who he or she will be contacting) prior to being woken up with an issue at 6:30 AM on a Sunday.
You should also pick a designated place to meet up—even if your team typically works from home, it’s always best to huddle in person when you have a tough situation on your hands. Make sure it’s somewhere that’s easily accessible and appropriately private so you can travel and speak with ease. Also make sure you have a conference call line ready to go (try GoToMeeting or freeconferencecall.com) in case you have team members in various locations (or one Hamptons-bound when the crisis occurs).
Establishing the Facts
When bad news hits—your customers’ security has been compromised, the big player is your space is suing you for copyright infringement—it’s essential to get the who, what, where, and why facts straight before you start to communicate anything externally. Outlined below are a few questions you’ll need to be able to answer. If needed, re-work these questions so they’re specific to your brand, and then stick the list in your wallet or phone for easy access:
- What happened?
- What time did the incident occur?
- Where did the incident occur?
- Who is affected by the incident?
- What steps are being taken to resolve the incident?
- How long until operations return to normal?
- Have there been any customer inquiries? If so, from who?
- Have there been any media inquiries? If so, from who?
Designate a Spokesperson
If you haven’t already designated a spokesperson for your startup, now is the time to do so. This person is usually the CEO or a founder of the company, but if you have another executive on the team that can handle tough questions, she may be an option, too.
Once you have designated your spokesperson, get her media-trained. Media trainers can simulate crisis situations relevant to your brand and industry, and provide guidance on messaging your team can craft beforehand to combat different crisis scenarios. When looking for a media trainer, search for someone with a journalism background and ask that they videotape the session so you can continue to work on your messaging and approach. And while face-to-face training is always preferred, you and your team can learn the basics with a manual like When the Headline is You: An Insider’s Guide to Handling the Media.
Build Your Lists
Once you have all of the facts together, depending on the nature of the crisis (and whether or not it’s already public) you may want to communicate with your stakeholders. If your customers’ credit card info has been compromised, for example, you may want them to find out from you —not from the press. To expedite this process, you should keep an up-to-date list of all of your clients, prospective clients, advisors, board members, and any other key players, including their contact details.
Similarly, you should have a media list of all the journalists that do (or might, in the event that you were suddenly breaking news) cover your brand, along with their contact details. During a crisis situation, communication to the media tends to be reactive (they’ll be calling you); however, in some cases, you may want to be the one reaching out to them. And having an updated list of the journalists your brand cares about will allow you to easily connect, plus keep track of any media activity that occurs that day.
Once you’ve got these crisis communications logistics in place, share them with your team. Spend a Friday morning simulating a crisis—like a 24-hour website outage or the news of a lawsuit—so everyone is comfortable with their marching orders. Then review how smoothly everything went and make any necessary changes to your plan based on what you’ve learned.
Now that you know how you’re going to communicate, you may be wondering what to communicate. In Part Two of our crisis communication series, we explore the necessary content that should be weaved into your client and media communications, and outline best practices for handling the media when a crisis hits.