If the current coronavirus news has you wondering what your organization would do in the event of an outbreak, now’s a good time to test your crisis communications plan against this potential threat.
Ensure employee contacts are up to date, review communications procedures and talk with your team about what to do if a crisis threatens your organization’s reputation. If you feel your organization is particularly at risk, draft key messages for likely scenarios related to coronavirus, such as an outbreak at your workplace.
Consider whether any of your company policies might attract negative publicity, such as limits on sick leave. With a number of airlines recently announcing flexible booking policies, companies that penalize customers for canceling travel plans may have to defend themselves against criticism.
Preparing for a crisis is always relevant
While coronavirus concerns may be at the top of your list today, it’s important to remember that a crisis of a different nature, such as a data breach, could affect your organization at any time. If and when it does, preparation is key to protecting your brand reputation.
Make sure your crisis communications plan addresses the following elements. If you don’t have a crisis plan, don’t wait until you’re in the midst of a crisis to put one together — use the tips below as a starting point.
Identify the team and the deciders
Who will be the people in the room when decisions need to be made? Do you know how to reach them during evening and weekend hours? Who has the final say when a statement needs to be approved? These crisis team members must be identified ahead of time and their contact information should be kept up to date and easily accessible.
Think about your brand ambassadors
Employees, third-party organizations and partners are all brand ambassadors who merit special status when it comes to receiving corporate communiqués, good or bad. Work these audiences into your crisis plan right next to customers and your legions of social media followers. Determine how you will communicate bad news to them, and what the message will be.
Spot potential issues
Spend some time identifying potential issues that could arise and thinking about the necessary steps you’ll need to take to acknowledge, apologize and ameliorate. It may make sense to start drafting issue-specific messages, holding statements, letters and FAQs for your most common crisis scenarios.
Talk to reporters now
When bad news is breaking, you’d rather work with a reporter you can trust. A crisis is not the time to be building relationships with journalists who follow your company. Develop solid connections with reporters by giving them access to information that they need to do their jobs, by bringing them thoughtful pitches and being respectful of their time and deadlines. Building a foundation beforehand gives you insights into their approach and makes it more likely that they’ll come to you first with an opportunity to tell your story.
Pay attention to the devilish details
If a crisis happens on a weekend, will you have access to the social media calendar to halt scheduled (and possibly inappropriate) social media posts? Who will communicate with administrative staff regarding what to say Monday morning when reporters start calling? When a crisis hits, you don’t want to be stuck dealing with every little detail. Assign roles to cover every base now so that when it’s crunch time, you can focus on the issue at hand.
Prepare spokespeople now
Naturally gifted spokespeople are unicorns. The truth is, 99.9 percent of us need to practice answering even seemingly basic questions when we’re on the spot. Executives should be media trained and regularly talking to journalists in order to hone their skills.
Low-stakes interviews make great practice for speaking with reporters and developing message discipline. When the time comes, make sure your spokespeople are well versed in the key messages and ready to respond to difficult questions. Note that you may need multiple spokespeople depending on geographic regions or industries involved.
Be a communications leader who shines
A crisis can be an opportunity to deepen customer relationships, fix broken processes, showcase a brand’s identity, and above all, demonstrate your reputation management prowess to the C-suite. With a little preparation, you will be able to focus most of your energy on a thoughtful crisis response rather than the mechanics.
Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in January 2019 and has been updated with new content in March 2020.