Mike Cummins, Vice President, Corporate Communications, Conagra Brands
With most large organizations employing teams of experienced communications professionals, you would think that dealing with a crisis would come rather easily. But these situations are mishandled with shocking regularity. We often see companies unprepared and unable to respond quickly and effectively in times of trouble, which not only affects a company’s reputation but often has a negative impact on the bottom line.
So why aren’t companies better prepared to manage a crisis?
While there are reasons particular to each organization, it usually boils down to one of these issues:
• Crisis communications is not just for communicators. Though the company statements to stakeholders (such as media, customers and consumers) will likely come from the communications team, other departments must step up during a crisis. There are roles for finance, human resources, legal, supply chain, operations and marketing, among others.
A key to a successful crisis response is identifying the departments in advance and ensuring that each one knows its role. One role that is often overlooked is that of crisis management leader. Who is in charge during a crisis? This shouldn’t be a communications person, as he or she isn’t going to make operational decisions. It is also rarely the CEO, unless the situation is of a size and scope where they need to get involved. Often it is a top-ranking operations executive who has full understanding of the business and the repercussions of the decisions that are made.
It is imperative to get your organization past the mindset that the communications team, and the communications team alone, can handle a crisis. And while time and money are required for training and plan development, it is money well spent and will pay off many times over.
• Organizations must prepare for a variety of potential scenarios. A company can’t prepare for every situation that might arise, but a communications team should be able to identify a list of the most likely issues and plan accordingly.
I work for a food company, so we focus on potential scenarios around our products. But we also have gone through simulations involving natural disasters, cybercrimes and disease outbreaks. While there are similarities in how we handle each of these situations, there are enough differences to warrant separate consideration.
• Companies must be prepared to respond at the speed of social media. Even companies with a solid plan, plenty of practice and a team of committed, experienced executives can be caught off-guard by the speed of social media. Today, a crisis can spread across the world in an instant, and keeping ahead of it can seem an impossible task.
The first step is to ensure you are thoroughly monitoring social media. Often, this means that you will learn about a crisis (or potential crisis) through social channels before you find out from internal sources.
Once you identify a crisis, the team will need to determine how to proceed. Sometimes that means a quick, proactive response across multiple channels. Other times, a wait-and-see approach is better. Making this determination, and changing course as necessary, is the only way to move forward. Posting a statement on the company website is not enough. Showing your constituents that you are concerned, engaged and actively working on a solution will help you get through with minimal damage.
• Don’t forget your most important audience — employees. During a crisis, it is imperative to regularly communicate with your employees. They are your best brand stewards. In the case of a large, high-profile crisis, their family and friends will be asking their opinions of the situation. You want them to be able to respond positively and help carry the company’s messages. If they don’t believe the company is acting appropriately, or if they simply don’t know what the company is doing, then you can’t expect them to act as brand ambassadors.
• It’s not over when it’s over. When a crisis finally dies down, it’s easy to disband the team and get back to the work you’ve been neglecting. But that’s a mistake. Take the time after the crisis is done, when it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind, to assess your plans and execution. Did everyone know their roles? Was the crisis handled as smoothly as possible? How can you improve the process for next time? Refining the crisis-response plan based on a real-life situation will teach you more than any simulation ever will.
Crisis preparedness is all about effort. It takes effort to add to your daily workload and participate in or plan a simulation. It takes precious budget dollars to set up monitoring services and work with outside agencies to train executives. And it all takes time, which might be our most precious commodity. But it’s worth it.
The key, of course, is to actively manage your brands and company reputation before a crisis hits so that you have credibility built up with your most important audiences.
Once a crisis hits — and it probably will — nothing is more important to your company than properly managing the situation. Take a few steps now, and your company will thank you later.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Strategist