Imagine this … You’re a senior leader in the booming health care industry. Q4 of the year found your company exceeding all goals and you set your aspirations even higher for the next year. Halfway into Q1, you think this is going to be the BEST year of all time when the headlines in the news make it clear everything is about to change. What’s next?
In a 2019 poll by CS&A/PRNEWS of 200 senior and middle managers, 62% of responders said their company has a crisis plan. Sounds pretty good, right? What if I told you that 50% of those plans have not ever been updated? Even worse, 58% have not been tested in hypothetical situations.
As communications partners for one of the largest senior living providers in the country, we’ve seen it all. Well, almost all. Below are five tips I’ve learned over the years of navigating crises with clients.
Prepare before the crisis
Crisis communications is something most people do not want to face. It probably rates up there with drafting a will or picking an insurance plan. It can be hard to admit there is a chance of something unpleasant happening, but it is necessary to be prepared. I promise you will sleep better at night knowing you have all the tools in place should a crisis happen to you.
While it may be challenging to think about and budget for, this is something that you urgently need to do. Just as you have insurance on your car in case of an accident, a crisis plan is there just in case.
You should think through what a crisis is to you. This varies from business to business and can be anything from a natural disaster to unflattering media attention, to everything in between (ahem: COVID-19). Basically, it is anything that disrupts your business or threatens your reputation.
Make a list of the scenarios that could go wrong, and start bulleting out how you would handle them. Are specific protocols needed? Who needs to be communicated to (employees, stakeholders, customers, etc.), and in what order of priority should you contact them? Do you need to contact the media? Does your spokesperson need media training in order to be interview-ready? What will you say on social media or your website? This is just the beginning of a long list of questions you need to be asking yourself.
It’s happened. The crisis is here. Now it’s time to execute your plan.
The first question you should ask yourself is “What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?” Get ahead of the rumors, and get your first statement to the appropriate audience. You do not have to have the solution before you start communicating. Let people know you are aware of the situation and are working through it. They need to know you are there, you care and you are on top of things. If things are changing hour by hour, then you need to be communicating as often as necessary.
The best approach is to be as transparent as possible with your audiences, both internal and external. Clear and straightforward messages are what people need to hear in an uncertain time. Of course, you want to be reassuring; but don’t let that cloud the main points. If possible, hold town hall meetings or calls and invite people to ask questions. Use the questions asked in those meetings to start an FAQ document. Provide key leaders with talking points to be sure the message communicated is accurate and consistent. You should present the facts with an assumption that the information will be shared with others, so don’t leave room for people to fill in the blanks with their own narrative.
Keep all the resources in one location and easy to find
Make sure everything is housed in an easy-to-find location. One option is to put all resources on a dedicated website. This creates a place where people can download materials such as letters, contact lists, photos and videos. For some clients, we create a space on these sites for media to get the most up-to-date information easily. You can link to this site on your public-facing site, which is especially useful when dealing with many websites (as senior living communities do).
The media can be your friend
When a crisis occurs, the instinct is to wait and hope it blows over. That is rarely a good idea. It is best to acknowledge and resolve whatever the crisis is as quickly as you can. Using the example of our senior living client and the COVID-19 pandemic, it was imperative that we work with the media to get stories out about how our client was using protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus. Our client representatives made themselves available for media interviews to explain what was happening inside the communities and why certain protocols were in place.
The bottom line is BE PREPARED! You don’t want to be caught off guard should the unthinkable happen. We can help you create your plan and all the assets you need for a successful execution. If needed, we can be there by your side to work the plan with you.
Stacy completed PRSA’s crisis communication certification program in 2019.