By Myra Oppel and Harry Brannan
It only takes a matter of minutes for a crisis to go viral but it can often take companies up to 72 hours to produce a public response to a crisis without pre-planning – at which point it is often too late to control any narrative.
Preparation is the most important part of any response to a crisis because it is the only step that can be performed with the inherent time, information, and resources limitations.
Preparation gives you a handle on four essential parts of handling a crisis:
1. WHEN – Don’t let a story get out of control – seize the initiative and the narrative
Whoever speaks first establishes the narrative. If you don’t speak, someone else will. If you don’t provide information, someone else will speculate. Even if you don’t have all the information, you want to establish what you are waiting to find out and when you might expect to know more. Speaking early, clearly, and confidently positions you as a reputable and responsible source and puts you in control.
2. WHAT – Know your values, key statements, and principles for crisis response
To seize the initiative, know what you are going to say. Risk assessments and pre-emptively drafting statements can be a lifesaver here. Improvising in a crisis is fraught with dangers. Even if the specific situation that arises was unforeseen, it is much better to work from prepared statements about company values, the seriousness of different types of allegations, or how seriously you prioritize employee safety than it is to develop these ideas from scratch.
3. WHO – Designate spokespeople for different situations, and prepare them for the job
Audiences pay attention to the title and demeanor of the person speaking to them. Sending out the CEO, versus the CFO or head of PR, to face questions is sending a message itself about the seriousness of the problem. Bringing out the CEO is like setting out the fine china – it makes a statement about the significance of the crisis, so it might not always be appropriate. Ensuring the bench of potential spokespeople are properly media trained protects against slip-ups or rookie errors in what will already be a stressful and high-pressure situation.
4. HOW – Build a resilient chain of communication that will stand strong in a crisis
Finally, preparation means that, should a crisis occur, individuals in the leadership team and beyond know their roles in the chain of communication to all relevant constituents, ensuring that stakeholders inside and outside the company are engaged and feel like they are being listened to as well. Codifying this process gives the initial response to a crisis reassuring structure, and individuals who know their roles the confidence to act with vigor and authority.
Ideal early crisis response is timely, clear, and resonates with integrity and confidence – all of which are only feasible if you have prepared. The difference between being able to exude a controlled and confident presence and being just as uncertain and unsettled as everyone else is simply preparation. When crisis hits, it is the duty of leadership to rise to lead from the front; crisis preparation ensures that you’re already one step ahead.