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While it is important to have a sound organizational strategy, a roadmap to success for your organization, it’s also important to have a plan for how to handle emergencies along the way. Crisis communication strategies are similar to scenario planning and risk management, but focused on how to handle both the behind the scenes and external communications when big issues arise.
Scenario planning allows you to consider different situations that may affect your industry or organization as a result of economic, environmental, industrial or other impacts. A crisis communication and public relations plan and strategy is how to meet these issues head-on and to pre-plan and agree upon the roles that your people will have in certain situations. This will help define the steps everyone will take to address or resolve the issue or crisis and make sure that your communication strategy aligns closely with your organizations overarching vision, mission, goals and strategy.
Whether your organization is large or small, you’re bound to face issues and crises at some point, and you will need to communicate with your publics and stakeholders in a timely manner. Having a plan, in advance, helps prepare your team, allowing your organization to operate efficiently in the crucial initial moments when a crisis arises. Think of this like an earthquake or fire drill in preparation for the real thing.
The well known United Airlines public relations fiasco earlier this year is a great example of why a large organization should have a sound crises communication plan in-tact, before an issue strikes. Mistakes on behalf of various team members and leadership led to a passenger being forcibly removed from a fully booked flight, an act that resulted in viral social media footage posted by other passengers onboard. While the event itself ideally would have been avoided, it was the organization’s handing of the media aftermath that I will address here.
The CEO’s initial statement blamed the passenger, which fueled the public’s outrage to the already upsetting event. Prior to this public relations nightmare, the United Airlines CEO issued a public apology and started working towards a resolution.There are a multitude of things that may have led to this event, but having a plan in place before dealing with the event’s aftermath would have been ideal to prevent the initial media and public backlash.
An agile crisis communication strategy may have helped United Airlines with their handling of the incident after the fact, from a public relations standpoint. Rather than acting reactively, after the footage was already on social media, a good communication strategy would have allowed the organization to act proactively, with a strategy that worked for them, rather than instantly laying blame on the removed passenger. There are many actions that United could have taken to mitigate the public’s anger, while addressing the issue head-on with an effective crisis communication strategy and plan.
What about smaller organizations who are less in the public’s eye? What crises can hit them that they need a plan for? The answer is many. They key is to have a plan in place, not to address specific crises (unless you know some big ones that might hit your industry or organization) but to have a plan of attack for when an issue arises, regardless of what it may be.
For example, last year in the winter of 2016, southern BC’s west coast was hit with a fairly large amount of snow. For an area that does not receive much snow, and often none at all, there was chaos. Some businesses and schools had to close for a day or two, there were delays on roads, collisions occurred, and many people rushed to purchase new tires. What businesses and industries were affected by this? To name a few: Schools, hospitals, municipalities, small businesses, and tire and auto shops, for example.
Many organizations did have a plan in place for an issue like this, but others did not. Many small and mid-sized companies faced questions like: How do we communicate to our publics and stakeholders that our business will be closed for the day? How will I find out local road conditions if there is a power outage? What additional supplies should we anticipate needing?
This is an example of one small, short term crisis that touched organizations of all sizes in one area. Natural disasters, political environment, changing rules and regulations, internal mistakes, and external threats have the potential to disable any organization. While being prepared won’t stop issues and crises from arising, it will help you and your team face them with calm expertise that can mitigate excessive damage and reducing impact to your organizations reputation, staff and stakeholders, and the bottom line.
Planning for issues and crises doesn't have to take a lot of time or resources. It can be created, adapted or updated alongside your organizational strategic plan as a part of the overall strategic planning process.