The following article is excerpted from the newly published book by By Tim O’Brien, founder of O’Brien Communications entitled, The Essential Crisis Communications Plan: A Crisis Management Process that Fits Your Culture:
While it is futile to try to create cookie-cutter template documents for all of the possible crises you may face, you can and should spend the proper time working to identify the most likely and highest-risk scenarios your organization could face.
Look back at the organization’s past history of crises. Study the types of crises your organization’s competitors or peers have faced or may be facing right now. Do a deep dive into your own organization, its operations and activities. Then, start to think like a crisis communicator. Ask yourself:
- What is the worst thing that could happen to the organization right now? Why?
- How could we find ourselves in a crisis without notice? What are the biggest and most likely risks right now?
Once you’ve started to do this, create a checklist of all possible crisis events and start to rank them. Have other Crisis Communications Team members look at the same list and provide their own rankings.
Then meet and brainstorm to discuss how you collectively arrived at these rankings. Start to homogenize your thinking as a team and come up with collective rankings of the most likely crisis events you could face.
Once you’ve created that list and detailed a rationale for why each is a real potential risk, you can do certain things to prepare. These are:
- Start to let the front-line managers, department heads and others in those parts of the organization know that these are crisis risks and you will be in touch to help them become more prepared.
- Consider these individuals some of your most important internal constituents for ongoing crisis preparedness activities, beyond the Board of Directors, senior management and the Crisis Communications Team.
- Solicit their input and feedback. Create a dialogue on crisis preparedness with them. Not only does this inform your own crisis management program, but it helps you integrate a crisis management mindset into the culture. It gets them thinking and watching.
- Focus some of your benchmarking attitude and opinion research in these areas.
- Start to develop message themes for these types of crises based on the larger concerns you would anticipate in such a crisis. While you cannot develop specific key messages without having all the details that a specific crisis situation would provide, you can anticipate common concerns that would need to be addressed in certain types of crises. Keep in mind, your brand can be impacted directly by crises that are not traditionally considered “brand crises.” For example, during a labor strike, affected employees will likely be concerned about some combination of job security, wages, benefits and perhaps work rules, among others. If your organization is at high risk of a train derailment and hazardous waste spill, the affected community’s chief concerns will likely be, first, their own personal safety. Then they will be concerned about what you’re doing right now to address the situation, and what you’ve done to prevent an accident, what you are prepared to do in the event of one, and how they can protect themselves in the event of a derailment emergency.
It’s important when working to create a short list of high-risk scenarios that you break them down into categories and start to plan for them, assign resources to monitor for them, and as an organization, work to prevent them. Categories are important because if the top 15 possible crisis events fall into five categories, for instance, that means you are preparing for five basically different types of crises. This simplifies the planning process overall. It narrows the focus to five basic categories of crisis, and it helps you prepare for scenarios within those categories that you just may not have anticipated before.
One of the more awkward conversations you could have during this process would be the identification and deliberation over potential crises that hypothetically could involve people in the room. More to the point, some organizations, like financial services firms, are inherently at risk for criminal malfeasance or unintentional catastrophic errors that could lead to security breaches.
Since the organization may be at high risk for such events, and the people who could be responsible are members of senior leadership and the Crisis Communications Team, diplomacy is required when discussing these types of scenarios. Still, the one thing you cannot afford to do is avoid any discussion of the possibilities.
The best way to couch these conversations is to frame the discussion with the long-term in mind. You are creating a process that hopefully will be in place long after everyone in that room has retired or left the organization. The important thing is to have in place a process that’s in the best interest of the organization for the long term.
Note to Reader: In all situations, you are working for the good of the organization itself and not any particular manager or group of people. In most cases, they may be one and the same, but in some situations, it’s important to remind yourself that your ultimate obligation is for the good of the organization.
Using a High-risk Crisis Scenario List
Once you’ve completed this list with all of the necessary support data, narrative and information, work to integrate it into your larger crisis communications plan as an addendum to be revisited along with the rest of the plan on an annual basis.