“I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested. I'd like to think that if I was I would pass.”
"The Impression That I Get” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite songs. When I heard it for the first time in 1997, I surely hadn’t ever been tested. Today, nearly 20 years later, I have been tested a few times personally and professionally.
If you have the weight of a business, non-profit, or trade association on your shoulders, you need to be prepared to be tested with a crisis event. You are likely to face one in one way or another at some point in your career. You owe it to your colleagues, members, board of directors, customers, donors, supporters etc. to be prepared.
These are the 10 steps I have learned by being tested with significant professional crises. Taking the steps below BEFORE the crisis hits will prepare you to deal with that crisis when it ultimately does hit…and if you never have to (knock on wood) experience such a crisis, preparing for it will still prepare you for greater success.
- Fix your known problems. Every company, non-profit and trade association I have ever worked with has had known problems that they chose not to address-some have had many. As big or small as these problems seem on a normal day, they become huge obstacles when you are in a crisis, so don’t wait another moment. Carpe diem and fix them now.
- Do a SWOT Analysis. If you aren’t familiar with SWOT analysis, it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It is where you take a hard look at your organization and look at it with a critical and forward-thinking eye. You can pay consultants to help with this and it can be a good idea to have an outside facilitator to take this on. However, if that prevents or delays you from doing it now, go ahead and do it internally.
- Tell your story. One of the most challenging things to do in a crisis is to define yourself. Once the Fiasco vortex (as Crisis Communications Guru Eric Dezenhall calls it) starts it is virtually impossible to establish or reestablish the narrative. Tell your story over and over again. Know that when you are completely and totally sick of saying it, it is just beginning to set in for external audiences. Having a solid foundation will give you a head start when others try to redefine you in a negative light.
- Invest in your allies and supporters. Do your supporters know your story? Do you have clear and successful channels of communication with them that you can activate in time of crisis? As part of the Cc: External Affairs Allies Audit system we ask identified existing allies to explain your mission and what you do. The first round of results you will often find to be disturbingly bad. Keep refining your message and communications channels until your allies can tell your story just like you would.
- Know thy enemies. No matter what the crisis is there are likely people who want you to fail. Many of these people actually stand to benefit (via publicity or financially or both). Do a comprehensive audit of the people with a vested interest in your failure and determine which ones are likely to add fuel to the fire. These enemies may be competitors, ideological adversaries or a media working to satiate the public’s demand for justice. Develop a plan to mitigate their success.
- Count on Murphy’s law. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Crises never come at a good time and they often come at the worst time. Plan on this and plan on redundant systems to get you through when the first system/technology/ human resource fails for one reason or another. Also factor Murphy’s law into your planning for the future. While this year maybe the most successful you have ever had, a crisis maybe just around the corner. Plan for success, budget for failure.
- Proactively build relationships with the media. Reach out to media covering you today on a regular basis. Make sure they are one of your first calls when trouble arises. Also reach out to the media that would likely cover you when things get turned up a notch. If you take the time to establish relationships, you can hopefully garner some good, or at least fair, press during a crisis.
- Develop a clear chain of command/decision making. Crises require decisive decision making and a lot of it. You will be overwhelmed by how much good, bad, and outright terrible advice everyone offers you. Developing a decision-making matrix and clear chain of command will help push the good advice to the top and the bad advice to the wayside. While committees, stakeholders and staff input are vitally important, there needs to be a leader that turns the ideas into action.
- Identify a spokesperson you trust and invest in media training to prepare for a crisis. You think you are media trained because you have been on TV a couple of times or done some friendly interviews. However, a crisis inevitably skyrockets you to the front lines of adversarial media and dealing with an opponent in the press requires entirely different approaches, strategies, and skill sets. Identify a spokesperson you can put your organizational trust in who can put your best foot forward. Make sure to get them top-notch media training so they ready to handle adversarial media.
- Test your rapid response system. Pick an upcoming initiative to stress test your crisis communications channels. How quickly can you respond? How quickly can you communicate your important message to activate members, customers, allies? Do an after-action report and review to identify your weak spots.
These steps are easy to skip when you get caught up in the day-to-day of running your organization. It’s easy to lose sight of the important work of preparing for a crisis. However, a crisis can derail all of your previous good work if you aren’t prepared.
Hopefully, you’ll never need them in a crisis. Even if you don’t, they’ll make your organization stronger and your staff better prepared to taken on whatever challenges the world does throw at them.
Chaz Cirame is the Founder of Cc: External Affairs, Inc.
Cc: External Affairs, Inc. – helps corporations, trade associations, public affairs firms and non-profits develop long-term partnerships to reach and exceed their goals - be they shaping public opinion, achieving legislative outcomes, or building lasting strategic alliances.