Image by keira-anne ♥ via FlickrWell, I was having a nice quiet start to the day when I got a call from La Swann wanting to talk on air about the Burj Khalifa elevator incident and how the communications aspect had played out.
Crisis management takes many shapes and forms, but generally is called for when something happens that is deeply regrettable in some way. Managing a crisis these days is about getting as much dependable information out as you can - fast. By being communicative, you earn the right to get your story out in full - to mitigate the hard facts with some explanations.
I've seen my fair share of these, from explosions and deaths through to recalled products and political screw-ups. Everyone's first reaction is to stick their fingers in their ears and shout lalala until all the nasty people go away. When you've endangered lives, when you've attracted the attention of the world's media, sadly, that's simply not an option - and no professional PR practitioner would consider it as an option for one picosecond.
So what do you do?
In minor and/or simple issues, you'd tend to be 'reactive' - you'd answer questions when they're asked, typically with a prepared statement. Where you've got a major problem on your hands (any issue involving danger to human life being a Great Big Red Flag), you get out there and communicate.
Typically, you'd want to say what happened, how and why it happened, what you've done to ameliorate the effects and how you're working to ensure it won't happen again. Critically, if there has been danger to the public, you have the opportunity to express regret and concern for those affected - and what you're doing to help them deal with the consequences.
Trying to get by with issuing a statement that does not recognise the facts is a short term fix that will rarely, if ever, work - particularly these days when everyone with a mobile is a TV crew. Rather than getting one hard hit with your side of the story told alongside the unpleasant facts, you're begging for a drip feed of stories that are wholly negative.
If you preserve your silence while that negative coverage is breaking, you are effectively positioned as arrogant and uncaring. News expands to fill a vacuum, so your silence encourages investigative reporting which will tend to be negatively skewed precisely because your silence ensures that your side of the story is not being told.
Because today's world is a fast-moving little place, news can globalise in minutes flat. That means having a sound crisis communications plan in place. This starts with imagining the unimaginable, planning for the very worst (including the unthinkable. It's funny how often the unthinkable happens) and then answering the million dollar question - how would we react if this happened?
There are a lot more questions to answer, too. Questions like who do we care about? What are our policies and procedures? Who owns this problem?
You actually need to put procedures in place, define reporting and escalation paths and have a team assigned for the unthinkable. You need to have 'dark sites' in place - websites that can be cut in to replace your standard home page so that relatives, friends and other concerned people can get access to information. You need to be able to scale quickly to respond to requests from media - local at first, but very quickly global. You need to have statements in place, at least in draft, so that you can minimise the time you spend wondering what on earth to say. Where appropriate, you need to have advice lines up fast and other facilities to help people deal with the incident and the concerns it raises with them.
For me, the most valuable part of this whole extensive (and, yes, expensive) exercise is forcing organisations to actually think about the unthinkable - and how it could be avoidable. If more organisations went through this structured process, I believe that more of the unthinkable could be avoided. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to get people to take this whole process seriously, by the way. Until, of course, they get that phone call...