Stephen holds a B. Comm. from the University of Saskatchewan. He has a corporate communications and graphic design background and works with AltaGas, Lentils.org, Canpotex, Great Plains College and the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation.
Crisis communications: boots on the ground can only walk so far
If you work in communications, the thought of seeing your organization’s name unexpectedly blowing up on social media is probably one of your worst nightmares. Before coming to zu, I worked on a communications team for a company that has an expansive network of physical infrastructure, including a number of industrial sites. During that time, I had the opportunity to help refresh a crisis communications plan and carried out a number of crisis simulations across North America.
The ability of an iPhone-toting, uninformed public to drive the narrative of a crisis – or to create a crisis where there really isn’t one – was always top of mind during these exercises and played a critical part in our strategic planning. Having boots on the ground certainly is an important aspect of controlling the story at its source, but you also need to have a concrete plan for managing your digital presence while you’re on red alert. If your operations are geographically dispersed, this need is only compounded, since your spokespeople may not always be close to a crisis.
Smartphones and social media have created a perfect storm that allows almost anyone to start a chain reaction of hearsay that can harm your company’s reputation with 280 characters and an out-of-context photo. In a matter of minutes, a story can spread like wildfire. If you’re (un)lucky, you might even get your own hashtag!
A little blue bird told me….
A typical crisis communications plan/emergency response plan/other-named crisis plan should include a number of canned templates for press releases, holding statements, phone recordings, etc. Finishing as much of the writing and approvals as possible ahead of time saves important minutes during a crisis and lets you focus on key messaging for the matters at hand. Your crisis plan should also designate who is going to be responsible for filling in the blanks in these templates, approving them before they are published, and actually sending them out or setting them up.
Take your preparation digital by creating canned social posts that only require some minor text changes to incorporate key messaging and maybe a photo. This significantly speeds up your ability to get ahead of a story online before it goes too far in the wrong direction. Building relationships with local media members, especially those with solid followings that are active on social platforms, is another great way to get your key messages across. Having that group of trusted sharers can help get your digital response out to a much larger audience than you might otherwise be able to do on your own.
Monitoring all the major social platforms on a good day is an undertaking in and of itself. During a crisis, this can become even more overwhelming if the story is gaining traction with the general public. Using a social media management platform like Hootsuite can greatly simplify these efforts and allow you and your team to coordinate your social strategy across all platforms from one place.
Make sure to consider your entire social strategy as you incorporate social platforms into your crisis communications planning. Intimately knowing and understanding the tone and publishing workflows of your non-emergency social strategy will help you recognize how crisis workflows may resemble or differ and lead to smoother integration. By ensuring that the two align, you will create a more seamless, cohesive experience for your readers and effectively deliver your messaging.
Integrate web into your crisis planning
Your website is the face of your organization in the digital world. When used in conjunction with the appropriate social channels, it can be a critical tool in managing the narrative during a crisis. As you assess the best way to incorporate crisis information into your website, it’s important to realize that not everyone is coming to your site for information on your emergency. By staying mindful of the entire user experience, you can communicate the important information without drawing more attention to the crisis than you need to.
Web crisis content is another area you can use plug ‘n’ play templates to save time. Figure out the gist of how you would communicate messaging via your website, and have this text drafted and ready to go. This information will often closely match the messaging and formatting you would be using for holding statements or press releases delivered through traditional media outlets.
You should also make sure to funnel incoming information and requests to the right person in your organization. If you have a spokesperson that will be the point person for crisis-related inquiries, their contact info should be visible and accessible. A flood of inquiries into your website’s general contact form could result in critical information getting lost in the deluge of questions, or could lead to someone from your organization not fully apprised of the situation answering questions without considering key messaging or the potential legal fallout.
Leverage your digital assets
zu has worked with several of its clients to help incorporate crisis communications solutions into their existing digital infrastructure. Every organization has a unique set of crisis communications needs, but at their core, the digital tools we’ve worked with clients to create help them communicate more effectively and efficiently with key stakeholders during a crisis, and check some important boxes during enterprise risk management planning.
With a couple of clicks, these organizations are now ready to share accurate information the moment it becomes available. By incorporating easy-to-use, scalable tools like MailChimp, you can make it a breeze for key influencers – from your local beat reporter to the big-time Wall Street analysts – to get the 411 on your 911 in real-time, straight to their inboxes.
Whether you have well-established crisis communications processes or you are still formulating your strategy, incorporating web and social into your planning and making sure that you have detailed workflows and pre-approved templates can play a critical role in mitigating misinformation and reputational damage. Get ahead of the story and bring your crisis communications into the 21st century!