An employee is impacted by COVID-19, an executive is embroiled in a controversy that becomes public, or a product is deemed dangerous. While the list of potential crises organizations face is far too long to list, the need for crisis planning can be summed up in one word: urgent. In the current COVID-era when a crisis can literally mean life or death, it is imperative organizations consider the triggering events that may set off a crisis and how to respond. Here are four steps organizations can take in order to weather a crisis and emerge successfully.
Communicate the company’s priorities and philosophy to clients and customers now. Too many organizations are reactive; they only share information about changes they are making when they have to. The fallout from a crisis can be significantly mitigated if a company has a strong track record of proactively communicating about worker protections, giving back to the local community and its commitment to social causes.
Building affinity to an organization before a crisis strikes will help ensure that organizations
have a loyal base of customers, clients and allies that are at the ready to help out when needed.
Craft a multi-tiered crisis communications plan. Decision makers need to develop a crisis communication plan for different levels of calamity that identifies the authorized spokesperson(s) for each level and the corresponding level of communication (from a tweet to a fully deployed crisis response plan) both within and outside the organization. This is an essential component as either under or over responding to a crisis can fuel additional ramifications, such as being perceived as an apathetic organization which doesn’t care about its employees or others at risk. The crisis plan should involve operational response plans, internal and external communication protocols and a list of stakeholders (with updated contact information!).
Ensure there is a deep leadership bench that knows the crisis response plan and their roles. There needs to be a team in place that spans the breadth of the organization – operations, technology, public relations/marketing, human resources, legal and other departments as needed that are part of a crisis management team. It is also important to have an heir apparent that can quickly step in – especially an employee who is cross trained to perform multiple functions. My colleague at the Pepperdine Graziado Business School Dr. Kevin Groves‘ approach to succession planning encompasses not just the CEO, but the entire leadership pipeline. He says the idea is to “maintain stability in key leadership roles and to avoid the massive disruptions associated with unexpected retirements or exits.”
Conduct batting practice including mock media interviews. Don’t assume that having a plan and a designated crisis team is enough. The crisis communications team needs to have drills – actually go through the motions of what would happen during a crisis. The best laid crisis plan is one that is never needed. But as the COVID pandemic has demonstrated, organizations need to be able to pivot and communicate immediately; those that have allies, prepared leaders and an actionable multi-tiered plan will be very glad they put the time and resources into being prepared.
Stephen Rapier, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School specializing in crisis preparedness.