Any company, no matter how diligent, can find itself suddenly thrust into a crisis due to internal or external factors. Incidents ranging from a product safety recall to a downturn in industry funding or worldwide health emergency have the potential to disrupt operations or threaten a company’s reputation. Stakeholders, whether customers, shareholders, partners or employees, will want to know immediately what happened and how it affects them. In today’s age of social media and instantaneous digital communication, companies need to be prepared to address a crisis immediately before someone else defines what it means for their stakeholders.
Mishandling a crisis can exacerbate the issue and shake public trust, causing long-lasting harm. While you may not have control over an incident or predict when one might occur, you will be better equipped to manage public perception of your company and the actions you take regarding the crisis with a comprehensive crisis communications plan in place. No one wants to scramble to find key personnel or determine who to contact when and how, and with what information, in the middle of an event. The solution is to plan your messaging and procedures in advance of any potential situation. Here are a few steps to get you started:
- Assemble a crisis communications team. Typically, the head of corporate communications or investor relations, or a company’s outside PR advisors, spearhead crisis preparedness. It’s equally important to include team members from other areas of the company, such as human resources, operations, medical and regulatory affairs and legal. This ensures having subject matter experts on the team, as well as professionals skilled at risk assessment and most familiar with where the company is most vulnerable.
- Identify potential crises your company could face – both those unique to your company and industry and those that could hit any company. Look at incidents faced by your peers, current events and everyday operations, as well as high profile company activities. Think about possible scenarios as the basis for messaging and rehearsing your plan. Doing this work ahead of time can reduce the element of surprise and make real time crisis management easier.
- Select spokespeople and determine communications protocols. In addition to your communications leaders, executives with high-level responsibilities need to be identified and trained (media and speakers training) who can speak credibly in various situations. Media protocols should establish exactly who may and may not speak to reporters.
- Develop messaging in advance. You may not be able to develop precise and comprehensive messaging for every potential scenario in advance, but some materials can be prepared as a base. This includes a “holding statement,” which is a simple statement that acknowledges there is a situation, the company is working hard to identify all the details and will have more information shortly. Review your core messaging and be sure any materials and spokespeople include it in any crisis related communications.
- Identify your company’s stakeholders and how and when to contact them. Stakeholders may include board members, regulatory officials, employees, partners, physicians, customers, investors and the general public. Decisions include who to contact first and how – email, a direct call, press release, etc. Don’t forget the company’s website as a fundamental resource people will go to for information.
- Rehearse your plan. This is where some companies often fall short in crisis communications. Hold a practice scenario at least once a year; preferably twice. Training should start with your crisis communications team, and then cascade throughout the organization. Your company should share and review the plan throughout the business, including all locations. After each test run, the crisis communications team and management should analyze the plan’s strengths and weaknesses, and team members should meet quarterly to determine if it needs updating. For instance, a product’s transition from clinical trials to commercialization or the turnover or addition of new employees could require changes to the plan.
On any given day there may be more pressing issues to handle, and many companies believe “it won’t happen to us” – that is, until it does happen to you, and then it’s more important than ever to be prepared and confident with your crisis communications plan.
This post first appeared on MedCity News.