Thoughts on managing a crisis from the PRCA’s Exeter simulation

How quickly could you get sign off on a statement during a crisis? When should you respond to individuals on social media? And how much information is too much? These were just some of the questions raised after last night’s crisis simulation that Polpeo ran for the PRCA in Exeter.

Getting sign off, quickly

I once spoke to a lawyer who said she had got to draft 97 of a one-line crisis response before it was signed off by her client. Unsurprisingly, by the time it was released it was out of date and far too late to have any bearing on the outcome of the crisis.

While no-one in the PRCA group had experienced anything quite that bad, there was a very lively discussion about whether people would be able to get sign off quickly enough in a crisis in their (or their client’s) organisations. On the whole, those working in smaller teams in-house found it easier to get quick access to the people who could approve external comms. But there are things that you can do to speed up the process, whatever organisation you work for. I think fast sign-off comes down to four things:

  1. Having someone on your crisis team who can sign off statements on behalf of the business. One (in-house) group member said that as soon as an issue breaks, the crisis comms team is assigned a crisis lead from the business who can approve everything straight away. That crisis lead will stay close to the comms team for as long as the issue is live, specifically to aid sign off.
  2. Preparing statements in advance. Sod’s law says that how ever many statements you have prepared, the one issue you hadn’t predicted is the one you’ll face. But you can predict the types of crisis you might face, and prepare examples of comms to follow for each crisis type. And of course, you can practise adapting those statements for social media.
  3. Having clear crisis roles defined in advance. Knowing who has responsibility for what is crucial in a crisis. If the CEO has sole responsibility for signing off on comms, and they are uncontactable, what happens?
  4. Trust. This is the big one. If you’re going to respond quickly, you have to trust the team in charge of comms to do the right thing. Training helps here, of course, and rehearsal. It also means building a really strong relationship with whoever has ultimate responsibility for the crisis.

Responding to individuals

Whether to respond to individuals provoked a lot of discussion. Our crisis simulation scenario yesterday started with a series of social media posts from a disgruntled ex-employee. The teams quite rightly started by trying to contact him directly to resolve the situation. When the situation escalated, it became clear pretty quickly that the teams wouldn’t be able to respond to everyone individually who was posting about the issue.

We talked about triaging posts, and the group agreed that the best approach is to group people and respond according to the impact they could have on the crisis. For example, answering customers’ queries is as important during a crisis as it is at any other time. Journalists and influencers, left unanswered, could have a serious impact on reputation. Employees can really help the company weather the storm if they’re kept informed. Pinned posts and general information issue regularly on all channels are great ways to speak to a mass audience.

How much is too much?

And finally, how much is too much? I’m a great believer that in a crisis, you need to get information out, fast, in order to be the voice of authority. If people don’t get information from you, they’ll get it from someone else. It’s the only way to stay in control of the message.

But equally, you want to be 100% sure that the information you’re issuing is correct. So short, regular communication of facts as you verify them will help to quash rumours, establish your authority, and reduce the volume of incoming queries.

Whatever your approach is, the important thing is to agree it before the crisis hits. These kinds of discussions are great to have with your teams now, so that when the worst happens, you go into the crisis prepared, clear about your role, and knowing how to approach communications from the outset.

Featured image by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Kate is COO and co-founder of Polpeo. Her background is in corporate reputation, crisis management and PR, and she runs communications consultancy, Carrot Communications. She is a member of the CIPR and the PRCA’s Digital Steering Committee.

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