TNKR Media is pleased to have Christipher Paré join our team of senior consultants. He is a former producer with Bell Media and communications director of an international nonprofit. You can reach Christopher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’ve found yourself in the throes of a crisis situation, you know how paralyzing it can feel. Especially if you’re in charge.
Crisis is inherently overwhelming in any context, no matter what sector you work in, but that is no excuse for managers and communications directors to not at least discuss and start anticipating problems before they arise.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a bonafide trend forecaster to see what’s coming around the corner. Think of it as due diligence: see what’s wrong or missing in your communications plan, acknowledge that these missing elements require action, and determine whether or not it can be handled internally.
If it can’t, then have the wherewithal to know when it’s time seek expert help. This includes coordinating with your operations, legal, human resources, sales and investor relations teams, among others.
Public relations is highly creative work, even in crisis. To get you thinking about possible crisis scenarios at your place of work, here are some common events that have been known to derail organizations, along with tips on how to start putting out the fires.
The advice below does not apply to all organizations and is meant to get you thinking about crisis planning that should be tailored for your organization.
Scenario 1: Someone was a COVID-iot
Accidentally or not, an employee, supplier or customer causes a panic related to the transmission of COVID-19 within your organization.
- SEE IT COMING: By now, we all should have a good idea of how to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Consult your regional health authority’s website (Montreal, Toronto) for tips on COVID-proofing your environment. Additionally, make sure signage is clear, concise and contains simple pictograms that are easily understood by people of all backgrounds.
- DO THIS: Immediately report any COVID-19 outbreak to your regional health authority. Be prepared to shut down in-person operations for a time, communicate a safety plan to all stakeholders, and set target dates for a resumption of normal activities, with enhanced safety measures.
- DON’T DO THIS: Resist the temptation to keep things quiet and quickly reject any such proposition from within your organization. The human suffering, financial loss and long-term reputational damage is nothing compared to the short-term hit of managing an outbreak, many of which are unpreventable to begin with.
- CONSULT AN EXPERT: Once you’ve met requirements set out by public health authorities and any professional order, go further by demonstrating an ongoing commitment to safety; speak to HR professionals about employee support programs, like virtual healthcare or other benefits plans to make your workforce healthier and more resilient.
Scenario 2: Workplace harassment
Employees past and present are calling out toxic behaviour, be it physical or psychological harassment. The culprits are managers whose conduct has gone unchecked for years.
- SEE IT COMING: You’d have to be living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean to not have noticed a dramatic shift workplace culture resulting from the #MeToo movement and the rise of corporate mental health. If your office seems behind contemporary mores, speak to management about informing colleagues of their rights or propose sensitivity training for those behaving inappropriately.
- DO THIS: Develop a robust internal communications strategy that reassures people while implementing concrete steps like mandatory training and a system for confidentially reporting abuses.
- DON’T DO THIS: Don’t keep things to yourself. Speaking to a manager or other stakeholder could save the organization a lot of grief in the future. Also, try not to doubt alleged victims as they already are carrying a significant burden.
- CONSULT AN EXPERT: When people start quitting or anecdotes hit social media, then it’s almost too late. Your greatest equity in a crisis is perception, and when things spiral out of control, these operations become more about crisis management over crisis prevention. Work with your experts daily to realign your policies and how the public sees your handling of these issues.
Scenario 3: Regulator trouble
You are in a regulated environment. A government or professional order is auditing you or found you may have violated professional guidelines. News gets out and now a reporter is calling you with questions.
- SEE IT COMING: If your organization is reliant on government grants or closely regulated by governments or professional orders, ensure you have appointed a compliance officer or at least someone on the team to ensure proper communication of best practices, internally and externally. Charities and other nonprofits are under increased scrutiny in Canada, making transparency and accountability with public funds, especially in a pandemic, a priority concern for managers.
- DO THIS: If the leaked news isn’t too damaging, contact the journalist to offer a follow up interview where you reinforce your organization’s integrity while assuring stakeholders. Definitely use social media to get ahead of the story – be honest, straightforward and reassuring, while also acknowledging that things could have been handled better. The public’s capacity to forgive good faith actors will surprise you.
- DON’T DO THIS: Lashing out solves nothing. Governments are immovable, unfeeling stone obelisks; shout at it all you want, it’s not going to make any difference. Any angry response that shuns accountability is ill-advised. To take on the system, you must have bulletproof quantitative (math) and qualitative (feelings) arguments ready.
- CONSULT AN EXPERT: The second you start hearing from major stakeholders, it’s time to get crisis plans into gear. The money you pay for crisis communications is a pittance compared to what you will lose if your big league benefactors pull up stakes. Possible strategies could include daily or weekly stakeholder updates, an informative social media campaign, a press conference featuring a technical briefing; and storytelling, like whitepapers, open letters, testimonials or other expressions of solidarity.
Scenario 4: Leadership vacuum
You find out your leader is jumping ship – or has been let go or suffers a medical setback and is suddenly… gone.
- SEE IT COMING: A CEO or other organizational leader is a bit like a symphony conductor and isn’t easily replaced. Leadership retention should be an ongoing priority for any organization and an acting leader, an understudy like the COO or CFO, should be trained to manage both internal and external operations. Alternate leaders should double as spokespeople should be media trained and ready to lead public-facing operations at the drop of a hat.
- DO THIS: Prepare a variety of statements or press releases that cover a wide range of situations: internal, to reassure staff that the transition in leadership will not affect operations, and external, to reassure clients or other stakeholders that operations are not affected. Quell uncertainty by keeping staff as up-to-date as possible – an assembly off the top, then weekly email memos; keep it accessible and avoid impenetrable HR language.
- DON’T DO THIS: You do not want to have a reactive stance during a leadership vacuum scenario, especially if you are a publicly traded company. Have a statement ready to go, build out three solid talking points that demonstrate a steady way forward, and project calm confidence in your collective workforce.
- CONSULT AN EXPERT: After meetings with legal and HR, the crisis communications team should be your next call if your audience and stakeholders get a whiff of trouble within your ranks. A leadership transition will be less rocky if your organization remains on-message, with managers, board members or other senior staff stepping up as needed.
Scenario 5: Social media mobbing
You wake up to a cross-platform social media mobbing, or even a coordinated smear campaign. After a minor operations mistake, critical posts are being widely shared, there are hundreds of negative comments, and followers are DMing you demanding an explanation.
- SEE IT COMING: In 2020, social media is not an afterthought; it is an essential part of any organization’s media mix, especially in crisis where rapid communication with your audience is essential. A dedicated social media manager or communications officer responsible for the accounts can spot early warning signs; the canary in the digital coal mine. Developing an audience with quality content, including some that sheds light on your operations, can give you a better platform to push back against unsubstantiated smears. Be as transparent as you can.
- DO THIS: Breathe. It’s going to be OK. First things first, report any posts that are libelous or contain threats of any kind. Ban any and all commenters who use threatening or inappropriate language. Next, shift the conversation over to your platforms with carefully crafted posts that address the situation and seek to resolve matters in a meaningful way. There, in your posts, interact with people who seem reasonable, not the trolls looking to bring you down, and use their concerns to massage your messaging and hopefully communicate that your organization is in good shape.
- DON’T DO THIS: Do not panic and start fighting with people in the comments section of posts you didn’t author or can’t control. Don’t type anything into any messaging platform that can end up as a screen grab and used against you.
CONSULT AN EXPERT: A crisis communications team, in tandem with web marketers, can help you put together a basic response plan using promoted posts, demographic targeting and stringent moderation to regain your foothold. Your content creators should work closely with your head of operations to better inform your audience.
Christopher Paré is a senior consultant at TNKR Media.