Crisis? Don’t cringe; be prepared

Crisis communications doesn’t have to make you cringe. If you plan accordingly and understand how to protect your reputation in a crisis, you can successfully navigate the situation and avoid the potentially negative impact an unexpected event could have on your long-term care organization.

We’ve all been there. You’re going about your day, handling multiple priorities and pushing forward with the usual tasks when out of the blue, you get that call. On the other end of the line is notification of a problem that needs to be handled immediately with the potential to be very damaging to the organization. What happens when that problem is a true crisis, with far-reaching ramifications that could impact residents, employees or your reputation externally?

Have you thought about how you will handle things when a problem is more than an everyday problem, but rather a crisis that seems to swell by the minute?

THE THREE Cs

The first thing to do is consider what I call the three Cs: you need to be calm, credible and connected during any crisis. Many in your organization will be looking to you to handle the situation and provide direction quickly. To help ensure you can genuinely embrace “the three Cs,” you need to make crisis planning a priority now, before you’re called to confront a problem.

A PLAN IS PRIORITY ONE

Putting a crisis plan together will allow you to think through the potential scenarios that could result in a crisis, and prepare your team for handling anything that comes your way. Here are the main areas to cover in your written crisis plan:

  • Establish a crisis communications team. Crisis planning is ongoing. While you can develop a plan of action, it is important to form a team that will keep the plan current and be on point to assist in any potential crisis. Many crises can be handled swiftly with greater consequences averted simply by having a trained team in place, empowered to respond.
  • Designate a spokesperson. You don’t want the day of a crisis to be on-the-job training for a spokesperson. Whether you decide the spokesperson should be you, or someone else in the organization, the key is that the person understands the company’s crisis plan and the messages to communicate in a crisis. Spokesperson media training is essential, with a refresher session each year, to practice delivering the messages.
  • Vulnerability assessment. Create a list of anything and everything that could go wrong. You have to think about worst-case scenarios. Plan for the worst and you’ll be ready for anything. Think about scenarios that could affect your residents, staff and guests. Poll your leadership team, board and even employees to cover all bases. Then, document these hypothetical scenarios along with a planned step-by-step protocol for responding.
  • Key message response statements. Create a statement for each crisis scenario you describe in your crisis plan; have talking points written out in your plan and ensure that your crisis team and leadership know the messages. Prepare customized messages for all audiences, addressing the areas each audience will care about.
  • Crisis drill. Practice your plan and train on key messages. Think through your internal and external communications steps. Hold a crisis plan drill that allows your crisis team and/or leadership team to familiarize themselves with the plan.
  • Phone tree/escalation path. Establish a phone tree of who should receive the first call, and then who is informed next and so on; create a flow chart of how the information will be discussed and disseminated. Revisit your communication chart once a month to ensure all contact information is current.
  • Social media plan. The rise of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) means news can hit your audience immediately. Include social media statements and a plan of action with social media responsibilities in your crisis plan. Assign one person to handle/monitor social media channels full time during a crisis, and respond swiftly if comments are posted on these channels.
  • Media relations. Set up Google alerts for key terms relevant to the crisis and monitor the Web constantly. Create a media relations policy for what to do if a reporter calls during a crisis.
  • Create a website template. Prepare a crisis response website and keep it “dark,” meaning it can be kept offline until you need it and then can be uploaded with the appropriate content to respond to the crisis. Include contacts, company policies, and even a place to post updates. Have it ready to go live with a few simple updates in the event of a crisis.
  • Study other crises. There are several well-known brands that have survived major crises with little impact to the brand. Study these examples and best practices, and apply their lessons learned to your plan. It’s always better to learn from someone else’s mistakes when it comes to a crisis that could have a long-term impact on your business.

WHEN A CRISIS HAPPENS

Even with the best planning, you cannot always avoid a crisis. When you’re facing the situation, first assess the level of the crisis, and the details surrounding it. Getting the facts straight, and a correct timeline of events, is important to responding effectively.

An internal communications statement to employees is always advisable before speaking externally about a crisis. This can be a brief couple of paragraphs sent out as an email or posted to your corporate intranet if you have one. It’s also a good idea to remind your employees of your media policy at that time and direct them to forward any media inquiries to the crisis team or the designated spokesperson.

Remember that you don’t have to share everything you know about a crisis situation to the outside public, but it is important to provide the main facts of the situation and provide an explanation of what happened. Showing concern, being forthright and avoiding absolutes are all ways to communicate effectively about a crisis situation.

In 2010, when the BP oil spill happened in the Gulf Coast, the company’s CEO Tony Hayward was criticized for the way he handled the crisis, initially being slow to respond and then pointing fingers at other third-party operators involved in the drilling, rather than taking responsibility early on for the spill. 

Even though your business doesn’t seem to have a threat as significant as an oil spill looming, you have to consider the fact that your communities certainly deal with life-and-death issues. A crisis could occur that requires you to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

CREATING A CULTURE OF COMMUNICATION

One of the best ways I’ve found to prevent a crisis is to encourage frequent communication about potential risks, operational improvements, resident satisfaction and safety concerns, among other potential issues. It’s much better to deal with these areas with the mindset of continuous improvement versus addressing them in a crisis situation because someone in your organization failed to raise a concern.

Good crisis communication typically starts for an organization with a consistent, professional communications foundation overall. Let your crisis communication plan be an extension of your corporate communication function and most of all, don’t let it gather dust on your shelf once it’s written. Practice it every year so that the thought of handling a crisis won’t make you cringe.

Tina Young, President, MarketWave, Dallas, has more than 20 years experience in branding, marketing and public relations. She has handled crisis communications planning for Fortune 500 companies as well as national and regional mid-size organizations. Contact Young at tyoung@marketwave.biz.

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