A simple glance at the latest statistics will remind you that it is probably just a matter of time before catastrophe hits your company. During a crisis, your communication effectiveness either preserves and enhances your reputation or threatens the stability of your business. What you say or do not say will be used against you—every word counts.
Every day in the U.S., more than 12 workers die on the job. Every year, more than 4.1 million workers suffer a serious job-related injury or illness. According to OSHA, out of 3,929 worker fatalities in private industry during 2013, 796 were in construction–one in five worker deaths. These statistics actually represent the lowest number of fatal injuries since the census was first conducted in 1992. As a whole, the construction industry has worked diligently to lower the number of workplace incidents.
However, based on 20 years of experience as a senior-level crisis communicator specializing in the construction, manufacturing and legal industries, the construction industry at large has not dramatically improved its crisis communication knowledge and skills. Case in point: We receive a panicked call after a crisis is perceived to be out of hand and the media has already gotten involved. Our team intervenes, provides appropriate information to media, family and employees, and the threat dissipates. The client resolves that this will never happen again—which is not realistic.
Complacency ensues without review, planning, team role clarification or ongoing scenario training. Before long, the lessons learned from the situation fade without effecting any long-term change in the company’s crisis strategy.
Resolve to Plan
Football invites a convenient analogy: responding to a crisis can be a lot like responding to a triple-option offense; if each crisis team member does not understand his or her individual assignments in context of the defense, the entire team is likely to get burned. Your company needs a flexible strategy with clear roles—with each player knowing exactly what to do and what not to do. Effective crisis communication depends on developing and rehearsing a game plan adaptable to all possible scenarios that could quickly derail a company’s image and profitability.
An adequate response policy will establish clear protocols and develop key messages in advance of a situation so that, in the moment, emphasis can be placed on playing assignments versus scrambling around deciding what to do instinctively. Developing a crisis communications plan can seem daunting. Risk is everywhere. It is normal to feel somewhat overwhelmed, but there is no excuse for completely ignoring the challenge of preparing. Even if you are not at fault, receiving media scrutiny and seeming unprepared or disorganized can damage your reputation.
You want to be ready at a moment’s notice with a coherent message and clear action plans. Start now by doing what you can to make the best of bad situations. If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, consider taking the following steps to changing that:
1. Commit to developing a 10-30/60/90 day crisis communications plan
- Crisis team formation within 10 days; Written plan within 30 days
- Practice scenarios within 60 days
- Proficient in crisis communications within 90
2. Work on what to say when you can’t say anything
Crisis communications aims at creating the perception of calm, measured control in challenging times. But to do this, you must take the time to also assess risks and educate team members on how to respond quickly and appropriately.
Simply saying “no comment” is not an option when you need to provide critical information. In the absence of your company’s narrative, people tend to fill in the blanks with assumptions and judgments. On the other hand, your good name can actually benefit if you demonstrate compassion and competency under duress.
3. Be prepared when you have to share
To be credible, you must be ready to share what the public, the news media and affected stakeholders need to hear. Have you trained your frontline representatives, such as receptionists or security guards? There will be pieces of information that you need to release in any crisis situation. You should have an efficient verification process and communication protocol for such information releases. When you release the information, you are also able to put it into context. It is better to get out in front and put issues to bed early rather than having to rebuild your reputation after damage is done.
4. Practice crisis scenarios
What good is a plan without practice? The physiological changes that occur when adrenalin is rushing through one’s body can cause that person to act irrationally.
In the same way your organization posts the routes to escape during a fire and then tests drills to measure response, crisis scenario practice will help your group become familiar with what could happen so there is no question of who does what when the pressure is on. Leadership should be proactive and invest before a crisis breaks.
5. Manage key issues
The cousin of crisis communications, strategic issues management (SIM), makes a systematic assessment of issues that stand in the way of objectives—whether it is legislative action that benefits a competitor, changing consumer tastes or the tactics of oppositional advocacy groups.
SIM is about identifying who the players are and finding ways to achieve common ground to remove obstacles to achieving goals and being good corporate citizens. Effective SIM translates into stakeholder trust. Your legal counsel should be arranged and briefed in advance of an incident. Your plan should include a comprehensive communications strategy that is approved by that counsel before the crisis hits. Your reputation is at stake, and without it, stakeholders will no longer think of you as a credible and trustworthy source. Protecting your brand is the key to long-term stability.
6. Pick your team and practice the plays
We advise our clients to train three to four key spokespeople to be prepared to communicate during a critical incident—this means key message rehearsal and realistic media training. While we do not recommend using the CEO as a primary communicator for every instance, it is important to weigh the gravity of an event to decide when he or she speaks publicly (vice presidents, general managers, and other top executives should also have the formalized training required to speak on behalf of the company).
If you do not plan and practice, your company’s reputation and profitability are left to chance.