By Dan Kramer, President of KPA Strategies, a Core Strategic Group Company
Thoughtful crisis communications planning and execution can protect and defend an association, individual or company from unwanted or unwarranted negative publicity with the potential for reputational damage. Without a plan, the effects of a crisis on an association could mean significant impacts to financial and reputational bottom lines, with exaggerated and costly operational impacts. In some cases, a slow or mismanaged response may even be deemed criminally negligent.
A crisis refers to any event or development that could have extreme, negative impacts on an association or organization. A crisis could include natural disasters, organizational issues, bankruptcy, malevolence, technology failure cybersecurity concerns or any other issue that might affect an organization. When thinking about the work conducted by associations, some of the major crises most likely to occur are based on management misconduct or malfeasance. Therefore, ensuring your association is effectively managed from the inside out is key to preventing disturbances.
Here are a few things you can do to help prevent or mitigate a potential crisis:
- ID your team – Everyone in the organization, from the most junior staff to the board of directors, should know their roles in the event of a crisis. Who is in charge, who has the authority to make quick operational and financial decisions, and who is their backup? It is important that everyone know the chain of command in case the person who is in charge is unavailable. Every association is different and, depending on the size of the company, some team members may need to take on multiple tasks to ensure the success of your plan.
- Train your team – Sometimes, the most important thing for team members to know is what not to do in a crisis. Protocols for who will talk to the media or who will serve as a liaison to authorities and/or first responders should be in place and understood. Likewise, all employees should know exactly how to handle and refer these inquiries if they are not the designated spokesperson. When you identify a spokesperson for the association, it is important to train that person for the most realistic circumstances – aggressive reporters, rapid questions, and even a sense of being overwhelmed and in the “hot seat.” During a crisis, your spokesperson will be the face of the organization. Media training for these individuals is critical to ensure they are prepared to field questions and address the situation in a professional manner. Having a spokesperson who is unprepared can escalate the situation and create additional negative publicity.
- Know your stakeholders – Knowing who your stakeholders are can help in any crisis. These are the people to whom you need to communicate your messages. They may include association members, potential new members, organizational leadership, staff, legal counsel, IT and security officials. Once you have them identified, learn how you can reach them in time through phone calls, text messages or email. Ensuring your messages are delivered to the right people is just as important as the messages themselves. Notification protocols may also include first responders and government officials.
- Develop an early warning system – An early warning system will help prepare your team for a crisis before it becomes overly publicized. Whether Google Alerts or a more sophisticated media monitoring software, this is cheap insurance for understanding and mitigating the impact of a crisis before, during and after it hits.
- Anticipate – Brainstorm a suite of scenarios that are both likely and unlikely and how your team will respond to each. Some crises have multiple elements while others are one-dimensional. Create a chart listing the most likely and the least likely crises and build out a plan for each. While it is difficult to predict all scenarios, having your team prepared for a wide array of the most likely crises should ensure your organization can adapt quickly to an unforeseen scenario and help prevent any further impacts on your association.
- Conduct a vulnerability assessment – Identify your association’s communications weaknesses. Examine those areas where a crisis situation could arise and work to strengthen those areas before a crisis strikes. Your association might have obvious issues that need to be addressed – any that come to mind immediately should be addressed first.
- Practice responding to the most likely scenarios – Whether you conduct a full scale crisis drill or simply talk through a mock scenario with your leadership team and the staff, there should be some dedicated effort to stress test your plan so you can identify and mitigate any weaknesses or gaps in it before a real crisis hits.
- Keep it readily accessible – Crises rarely break when we’re at our desks and ready to go. They come in the middle of the night or at odd hours, so make certain that every team member has redundant, real-time access to your plan. Each member should have at least one hard copy for home and one for the office, as well as the ability to access the plan remotely, either from a secure website or a mobile app.
- Communicate – Communicate in real time. Messages should be relevant and understandable to those receiving them. Your stakeholders should receive messages that feel as if they were crafted specifically for them. Keep in mind who your target audiences are and make your information widely available. Consider having your messaging translated into multiple languages, if necessary. Build-in communications redundancy and backups, including mobile phone calls, texting, emailing and traditional mailing.
- Keep your plan “active.” – An unopened document in a binder gathering dust on a shelf is not going to do anybody much good. Review your plan every six to twelve months to see where and how it should be updated, and regularly remind key staff of their roles in a crisis, and where/how to access the crisis plan.
Crisis communications sounds daunting, but starting with at least a basic action plan and successfully executing that plan may make all the difference to the future of an association facing an imminent crisis. Crises can be prevented, but properly navigating your association through an unlikely event can help prevent any future damage.
On a final note, after the crisis has passed, gather your team to analyze what happened during the situation. Look into both the good and bad parts of your response and make any necessary adjustments to your plan. Your plan should be regularly updated to reflect current vulnerabilities, messaging, stakeholders and communications. Remember to incorporate the plan into your association’s regular communications discussions and revisit it on a regular basis to ensure everyone in your organization is prepared. A crisis cannot always be stopped, but with preparation and regular practice, you can save your association from any major long-term damage and possibly even emerge from it with your reputation enhanced.