When crises strike in the corporate world we look to those we trust to help us take the critical first step in responding. For many companies in the wake of a crisis, inviting a communications person into their closed-door sessions is the last thing on their mind. Yet we’d like to propose to you that this is the single most valuable person you could invite.
The typical knee-jerk reaction in a crisis is for the C-Suite to bring in the legal team to quickly craft a defense to help “clear the company” of responsibility. This is no fault of the legal department; often, a lawyer’s primary job is to avoid taking any responsibility for the crisis when millions in lawsuits could be at stake. This is what they are paid to do, but it’s not always the right first response. We all remember those famous first lines: “This was not our accident … This was not our drilling rig … This was Transocean’s rig. Their systems. Their people. Their equipment.” A perfectly crafted statement – if saving stockholder value was the #1 priority. This is not the response of a communication professional. It’s a cold, heartless, and self-serving statement. And worst of all, it helped to shape a public opinion of the company that they are still battling today.
So, how does having a communications professional in your war room benefit you during a crisis?
Sense of Audience in Crisis Communications
Your communications team spends every working moment of their day communicating to your stakeholders. They understand the audiences involved in this crisis intimately, and they understand how this crisis impacts them. Their instincts come alive during a crisis and they can impact the crisis communications moving forward in great detail. Without them, you risk alienation, anger, and disappointment from disenfranchised audiences. A communications professional can navigate audience reaction by bringing tact and sensitivity to the table.
The Right Message at the Right Time
Communications professionals create and spread messages everyday. You’ve hired them to represent your company in all contexts – even in an emergency. Many times in the context of a crisis, the message is created in the war room by the legal department, or at least passes through their hands with Carte Blanche control to make changes. Having the communications team in the room allows both teams to work collaboratively to create a message that avoids legal pitfalls while incorporating compassion and truth. You create the best message possible, simultaneously protecting your company value and showing compassion to the nation that is watching.
Responsiveness in a Crisis
In this age, the world is watching on more than TV. Social media, email, and other online channels all contain messaging about what is happening in your company. Bringing your communications team into the war room allows them to hear the plan first hand, understand the risks and consequences, and then go to work publishing updates on all of your channels. They can get ahead of the public media with a multichannel campaign. But they can’t do this if they don’t have a seat at the table when the response is being planned. The right message delivered too slowly will lack the relevance and impact of one delivered quickly.
Responsiveness is accelerated when you have a repository of pre-approved messages at your disposal. We’ve worked with many clients to create responses to the things that keep their CEOs up at night, and they’ve provided value in key times when crises hit. These templates allow a company to respond quickly, and could save your company when the cameras are at your front door.
Before The Next Crisis… (it will come!)
If you are a CEO, you should talk to your communications team about their crisis preparation plans and, if needed, review a plan for crisis training for CEOs and your media team. Preparation is worth every dollar when the crisis hits.
If you are a communications professional, work now to establish trust and relationships with the legal and risk teams. You don’t want to walk into the room not knowing anyone and have trust be a barrier to working together effectively. If your spokespeople are not ready, explore crisis training for them.
If you are part of the legal team or risk management team, extend the same olive branch to the communications team to build a working trust now, before the crisis hits. This is when cooperation is needed most, and no one team has all the right answers.