New Year’s resolutions are all about taking control and preparing for a better future. For communications professionals, resolutions that address crisis preparedness should be given top priority. January is an ideal time to take stock in your capabilities and make an honest evaluation of your organization’s crisis preparations.
Even if existing plans are in place, it’s important to acknowledge that issues and players are constantly in motion and that plan components have a limited shelf life. Every organization is unique, but here’s a list of crisis resolutions that will give you a head start in 2024.
Form a crisis team
When managing a crisis, it never makes sense to go it alone. Forming a dedicated crisis team ensures that you have the expertise, institutional knowledge and authority to address critical issues, gain alignment on messaging and react in real-time to changing events.
In addition to corporate communications staff, effective crisis teams should include executive leadership and representatives from key business units, human resources, legal, operations and others who can meaningfully contribute to active problem-solving. Taking the time now to identify potential team members and establish protocols to follow in the event of a crisis will shorten future response times and ensure you have the right people on board when necessary.
Conduct a reputational audit
January is also an ideal time for organizations to take a close look at what issues can potentially pose a threat to reputational equity for the coming year. All too often, organizations minimize the possibility and impact of potential crisis events, planning responses only for obvious vulnerabilities or for repetition of past events.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Led by corporate communications, reputational audits engage subject matter experts across the organization seeking to identify issues that could lead to unwanted headlines, customer dissatisfaction or negative social media activity. Issues vary by organization but may include lawsuits, regulatory changes, product safety, leadership succession, labor relations, employee behavior and other topics that, if left unmanaged, can pose a significant threat to reputation and brand value.
Develop key messages
Once you have a better understanding of the issues that may present challenges in 2024, take the time to develop messaging that will give you a head start on managing an actual crisis. The most common mistake organizations make is assuming their experience and deep subject-matter knowledge are enough preparation for a crisis and that they’ll be able to respond immediately. The reality of today’s news cycle is that public opinion fueled by social media evolves more rapidly than ever before, often creating polarizing viewpoints with little notice.
Even if you have examples from prior events or draft messaging in place, it makes sense to invest time now in refreshing holding statements, talking points, Q&A and other documents and circulating them to internal stakeholders to gain alignment and approval. If a crisis breaks and reporters issue short deadlines, it would be measurably more difficult to develop responses that reflect the full experience and intentions of leadership and key stakeholders.
Conduct a live drill
No matter how much time and effort is placed on message development and planning, success in any crisis depends on execution. That’s why it’s essential for crisis teams to conduct live rehearsals of potential crisis events to check response time, staff availability, coordination and the ability to adapt to fast-evolving issues. An effective drill can not only minimize disruption to the organization but will also include several random elements that test a team’s ability to employ best practices as well as improvise to address unexpected challenges.
It’s also effective to engage a wide range of team members to roleplay as journalists, emergency personnel or local government. This practice raises awareness for the organization’s preparedness and improves overall communication with crisis team members in the event of a future crisis event.
Debrief on 2023
This is a great time to gather your crisis team and conduct a full debriefing on the past year from a strategic communications perspective. This exercise should include a review of previous goals, an examination of media coverage from both a quantitative and qualitative perspective and feedback from employees, customers, reporters and others who play a role in defining an organization’s reputation. To advance your preparedness, direct questions need to be addressed that expose vulnerabilities and identify which capabilities need to be improved in the coming year.
Maintain media relationships
It’s no secret that good working relationships with reporters are essential to any successful crisis plan. What many have lost sight of since the advent of COVID-19 lockdowns is the value of in-person meetings to further these relationships. Hybrid work environments have made face-to-face meetings rare, which means that brief, in-person meetings to discuss editorial needs will automatically make your team stand apart from the crowd. January is a good time to schedule these meetings as reporters regroup from the holidays and are actively seeking content for the next quarter.
No time to prepare?
January is a particularly busy time for communications professionals, so why take the time to take these steps if you’re not currently facing a crisis situation? The reality is that, of all the deliverables managed by communicators, crisis events have the highest potential for reputational fallout.
Outcomes are often driven by outside opinions or random elements, which makes preparation even more critical. Investing time now allows communicators to reduce at least some of the random nature of a crisis, providing you with the ability to respond in a more proactive, strategic manner.
Mike Goodwin is Senior Vice President at Stanton Public Relations and Marketing.