Don’t have a crisis plan? Competitors can’t wait until the next disaster hits your company.
Your business isn’t controversial. You’re rarely affected by other industries or trends. Sure, a lot of things can go wrong, but no one can prepare for them all.
I’ve heard every excuse from CEOs who don’t make time for crisis planning. I’ve seen a number of those same executives blindsided by data breaches, offices destroyed in natural disasters, lawsuits, sexual harassment, domestic disputes spilling over to the office.
When a crisis hits ‒ and it will ‒ customers and news reporters aren’t the only ones with questions. Board members, bankers and lawyers want to know how you’ll get out of this and why weren’t you prepared? Across the street, your competitors couldn’t be happier. They’re already deciding which of your customers and employees they want to poach.
For any CEO who doesn’t have time for crisis planning, here’s my response: An experienced PR professional can develop an efficient planning procedure then walk your staff through it. You’ll have a compact, versatile plan covering the basics of just about any emergency, especially those your company is most likely to face.
The plan lets you focus on the two most critical times in a crisis ‒ before it strikes and within the first hour, when actions often determine whether the damage can be mitigated or mushrooms into something larger.
We’ve put together a few scenarios to show the differences between having a plan and no preparation. These are hypothetical but based on real experiences.
A construction site accident leaves a building contractor employee dead and two others injured. The incident takes place around 4:45 p.m., and the CEO is out of town.
The company without a crisis plan wastes valuable time finding a senior staff member who can confirm the details and who’s been made aware. The crew manager at the jobsite is dealing with law enforcement and emergency crews.
There’s no contingency for social media, so no one is aware that onlookers posted pictures on Facebook. Some of the posts include erroneous information about the accident and how many people were involved.
With no word from the company, rumors swirl that several people were killed and some are still trapped below wreckage. Relatives of the dead worker see the Facebook images and react with angry, emotional posts that spark an explosion of replies.
An hour after the accident, TV reporters are frantic for information as they prepare to go live for their 6 p.m. newscasts. With no one else to make the call, the company’s communications director decides to leave media questions to the police department’s public information officer, who won’t get to the scene in time for the newscasts.
With a few items picked up from police radio chatter and talking to bystanders, the story spills out in a jumble of details – some of which are incorrect – along with “unconfirmed reports” of multiple injuries and some of the drama playing out on social media. Worse, reporters say the company has not responded to repeated requests for information.
A company operating in a heavily regulated industry is visited one morning by police serving an arrest warrant. An employee is handcuffed in front of several coworkers and taken away in a patrol car.
The company without a crisis plan doesn’t think of sending someone to speak with the officers. The communications manager makes several phone calls before finally determining the arrest was not company related.
The delay provided ample time for rumors to grow exponentially. In addition to falsehoods about the company’s prior knowledge and the nature of the charges, some are saying that more arrests are coming, including some of the executives.
By lunchtime, a number of employees, customers and board members have emailed the CEO with questions about the arrest, which is now all over social media. Unsure what to do, the CEO hastily sends a poorly worded email to employees, saying that police were at the office this morning “about an employee’s private legal case,” that the “the matter is under control,” and employees are not allowed to talk about it.
Later that afternoon, senior staff members are noticeably shaken with the growing confusion and questions directed toward them. Egged on by competitors, more rumors claim that state regulators are investigating the company.
In another misguided decision, the CEO figures news media will likely find out about the arrest if they don’t already know from social media. He and the communications manager write a statement but can’t agree on the language and points that should be included.
Reporters, who were unaware of the situation, read the company’s clumsy statement that offers little information while raising several questions. Now they’re curious.
As the drama rages on social media, reporters are now calling for more information. What are the charges? Is the company facing legal trouble? Has the company notified regulators? Is it true the employee violently resisted arrest?
The communications manager directs reporters to police. Each one dutifully calls the department to get the arrest details then call state regulators for comment. One TV crew sets up near the offices, catching employees on their way home. A few agree to speak, sounding worried and confused.
The story runs on the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. The newspaper has a front-page story the next day that straightens out much of what happened, though much of it focuses on the company’s botched public response. It includes the fact that “a company spokesperson refused to provide more information and referred questions to police.”
A strong thunderstorm blows in after midnight, and lightning strikes a sales office. Every computer and server is destroyed, despite the fact they were plugged into surge protectors. Despite the strike, it’s still possible to serve customers, provided the electronics can be replaced.
The company without a crisis plan gets caught completely off guard. When they arrive for work, employees are unnerved to hear the office may be closed for the next few days. Some are sent home and told the company will be in touch.
When the CEO meets with executive staff, they learn the crisis is bigger than zapped computers. No one was regularly checking the server backup system, so no one realized it stopped working four months ago.
The options are now considerably worse ‒ try to restore data that’s nearly half a year old or re-enter it manually. Either way, the sales staff doesn’t have reliable customer contacts and current information on their accounts.
Tempers flare, making it even harder to keep everyone on track as more time slips away. Some of the staff appear overwhelmed by the challenge ahead. Those who are willing to get rolling can’t agree on how to proceed. And the employees sitting at home are growing doubtful about the company’s ability to survive.
By the time some of the initial recovery decisions are made, board members and bankers are demanding answers. Competitors are interviewing some of the company’s best employees. Competitors have also been more than willing to relay news of the lightning strike to frustrated customers who haven’t heard from reps in several days. If those customers need help, they’re told, maybe it’s time to try a more reliable company.
What kinds of disaster might be unfolding already for your business? How do you detect them, and what happens when you do?
Zehnder’s battle-tested PR department offers comprehensive crisis planning that covers what happens before, during and after a crisis. We’ll show you the bigger picture with threat assessment and how to implement changes that build protection against the next disaster.
For more information on crisis planning and how Zehnder can help, contact Ann Edelman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (225) 242-9000.