Exploring how institutions and organizations have handled past crisis events affords even the savviest of PR practitioners an opportunity to reconsider how we plan for crises in today’s environment. It’s time to look at new ways to communicate our message.
We’ve heard it a lot, but there really is no more room for the platitudes of “our thoughts and prayers” are with somebody.
Communicators need to be more creative; we must be more authentic and personalize that message. We’ve got to find new ways of creating simple, more authentic, more personalized language. Taking actions now that are going to be visible later is a key element to crisis communications planning today. But, we must also remember that actions often speak louder than words. Paying attention to the logistics of how you navigate a crisis is just as important, if not more, than the words you use.
Make sure that you’ve got your CEO and your leader visible. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to have other spokespeople, but in a crisis, people are going to want to see your leadership in charge, particularly when it comes to DEIB concerns and other hot button issues. Also, remember that leadership is crucial behind the scenes. With your CEO or spokesperson out front, make certain that your thought leaders in public relations, communications, or marketing, always have a seat at the table. Not just in guiding the communications crisis plan. They should be involved in all major operational decisions about the direction of the institution or organization. You want the people responsible for creating your message to have all the information as it comes.
Ditch the ego
Very rarely is the crisis about you as a person, and very rarely is it about anybody that’s on your crisis communications team. This is not the time to dig your heels in and insist that it’s going to be your way or the highway. It’s a collaborative process. It is imperative to have different voices in the room and have an open mind to doing things differently than what has been done in the past. Be prepared to help leadership admit when there was something wrong and understand the implications of those mistakes.
A crisis event is usually a surprise, and stress can compound quickly if you don’t have all your logistics thought through in advance.
The first thing to think about is your onsite logistics, capabilities, and capacity. If you had to host a press conference on campus, do you have somewhere to do that? If that’s not a safe spot, or if you need a bigger space, do you have an offsite location where you can gather?
Do you need to have any sort of AV considerations to set up a collaborative space for you to manage the crisis?
Maybe you need a war room set up with the resources needed to get you through. When preparing for an event, there is of course the typical AV equipment, podiums, chairs, and physical spaces. Face masks, batteries, caution tape, and other things you may not necessarily think about in advance, but you have on-site just in case you need it.
The past two years have consisted of mostly Zoom meetings, and we need to think about incorporating virtual components into crisis plans. Are you streaming a press conference instead of holding one in person?
Think about your alert systems, whether these are physical, on-campus signages, or digital channels. Most colleges have those emergency web banners and emergency tech systems. Have a plan and the logistics in place to activate the alarm.
How are you incorporating your website and your social channels? And throughout your crisis plan, if you have media coming to your campus, is there an easy way for them to access your Wi-Fi networks if they need to share files and communicate back to the newsroom? All of these factors will affect how efficiently and correctly your message is delivered to the world.
A crisis doesn’t stop just because the workday ends. When it comes to staffing and resources, think about shift scheduling.
If there is a major crisis that is a 24/7 all-hands-on-deck situation, think about how you can allocate staffing hours to get as much coverage as possible.
If you have a welcome center or an initial point of contact for the public, make sure the faculty or staff answering the phone are aware of your key messages and talking points. They should be made aware of the details they know they’re allowed to say and the information needed to communicate to the public.
For example, if a math instructor gets a phone call from a parent, do they know that they need to send people to the standalone website for more information? Those directives should be communicated far and wide.
Evaluating for the Future
After a crisis, it’s important to debrief and evaluate. Figure out what worked, and what didn’t, and update your plan for the next time
When you get a chance to regroup and recap the crises from start to finish, it is essential that you evaluate how your team performed. This is a step that you cannot skip, even if things went 100% according to plan (which they probably won’t). Celebrate the victories but be honest with yourself about where things went wrong. Maybe you missed a critical component in your PR plan that you were able to handle in the moment, but you need to document what you did and how to fix it, preventing a mistake next time that could topple your operation.
Reflect on how the crisis relates back to your long-term communication strategy and vision of your organization. After you debrief, go to leadership, and talk about your organization’s mission and values. Did the crisis impact anything that your organization stands for that needs to be communicated? Do any additional actions need to be taken?
If there is a case of racial inequities, what have you communicated to your faculty to make sure that this doesn’t happen again? What actions have you implemented? If there is something that impacts your brand reputation, are you taking steps to move forward with repairing the damage? Touchpoints may have to be done from a communications perspective to show that you’re not just talking the talk, but you’re walking the walk.