How To Communicate In A Crisis
March 31, 2022
Naomi Seligman is a nationally recognized strategic communications leader, a social innovator and an expert in high-stakes communication. She transforms organizations into powerhouses of influence. She has led successful local, state, national and international campaigns for advocacy organizations, elected officials, mission-driven corporations, tech innovators and entertainment industry luminaries through robust partnerships, cutting-edge tactics, creative marketing and media buzz.

Marni Tomljanovic is the founder of Good Grit, a social impact collective that guides leaders and organizations in moving their missions forward. She has worked at the intersection of change, culture and communications for two decades. She has built award-winning social impact programs around gender equality, social and racial justice, mental health, body positivity, labor standards and health equity. Most recently, Marni worked at Instagram and The Walt Disney Company, where she was responsible for policy communications and global CSR initiatives. Together they discuss the key to effective crisis management.

The first place to start when your company is caught in a crisis

Naomi: A crisis can take many forms, from harassment to a recall to corruption to a man made disaster. They all have brought down scores of people. Although some of these events are beyond a company's control, others were probably avoidable. The best time to plan for a crisis is well before there is a crisis. You can never be too prepared.

When in the midst of one, the worst thing to do is bury your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away. The best thing to do, from a communication standpoint, is to address it as fast as possible. A coordinated approach to issues management is needed. Part of that means understanding the universe of what can happen and developing a crisis blueprint.

Components of a crisis blueprint

Marnie: When developing a crisis blueprint, it's critical to think through every scenario, understand what's around the corner and anticipate what's to come. A big part of that is listening and learning. It's essential to conduct this exercise both inside and outside the company utilizing external and internal stakeholders and sources.

Often, that looks like people like Naomi and me coming on board in advance and sitting down with senior management to conduct interviews and understand the pain points and vulnerabilities. A lot of times, water cooler talk can explain potential internal vulnerabilities. Externally learning from other companies who have experienced similar can also provide value. We also look at industry reports, polls and surveys. They paint a bigger picture and bring potential threats to the surface. Last but certainly not least is to monitor press and social channels for mentions of your brand.

Conducting a risk identification audit

Naomi: The first step is to do a risk identification audit as part of a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis assesses strengths and weaknesses internal to the company and opportunities and threats external to the company. That process allows you and your executive team to help think from a broader perspective. By developing this inventory of vulnerabilities, you begin to get ahead of the issues. We have to determine the trigger for each threat and how a hypothetical scenario for a crisis might unfold based on past patterns or previous cases. This allows you to critically examine areas of weakness across the organization and consider what actions could offset them.

Social listening and false positives

Marnie: We learn a lot by social listening. It allows us to pick up on things we never even thought would be a potential problem. To give an example about how important that is, I come from working in social media. And a lot of times, there's something we call false positives. That's when machine learning will accidentally take something down that shouldn't have been taken down because it wasn't actually violating any policies or community guidelines.

Many times, false positives reinforce a negative stereotype about the company. When things like that happen, we understand that it will initiate another press cycle because every little mistake becomes bigger in crises, and people will always call you out. Being proactive and having a reservoir of goodwill is imperative for all organizations. It's critical to show you are making efforts so that people cut you some slack when there is a mishap.

Once we've identified our vulnerabilities, we need to craft the blueprint. A carefully drawn plan will allow you to assess and address the scope of these issues and how it affects your company.

Building action plans within organizations


Once we've identified our vulnerabilities, we need to craft the blueprint. A carefully drawn plan will allow you to assess and address the scope of these issues and how it affects your company. When going from tactic to tactic, we are too in the weeds to get a big picture view.

The audit allows us to get a global perspective and ends up being the front of your plan. It helps you establish a baseline of what the rest of the plan will look like. It allows you to have your detailed communications response procedures ready for unforeseen external events.

Assigning accountability

Marnie: In moments of crisis, time is your enemy. You have to be clear on what your crisis protocol is. You hear about war rooms where you have immediate access to decision-makers, and everybody is together thinking through the issue at hand. Those war room conversations would ideally take place before a crisis occurs.

It needs to be understood: Who is responsible for leading the organizations? Who else needs to be alerted when new information arises? How will those people be alerted? In what order of priority? How will it be ensured everyone gets together quickly? Again, promptness is really important when every moment matters.

Allies and stakeholders and friends

Naomi: Assigning accountability is a critical piece of any kind of crisis plan. A critical question is, have the people we're assigning these responsibilities to already been trained to take on their role in a crisis? Do our allies, stakeholders and friends know what needs to be done, and are they aware of any contingency plans?

A reputation is an asset that can be managed. It's a long-term process that involves plans, programs, measuring, monitoring and managing.

Strengthening your foundation

Marnie: Most large companies have pretty sizable risk management teams, and they're responsible for managing financial and legal risk. Your reputation, corporate citizenship and legacy are tied to the bottom line. They are not extras. They are essential costs of doing business that takes strategy and long-term planning. In crisis communication, your words need to match your action. Whatever you say you are invested in, your actions have to match the commitment. Part of setting a strong foundation is deciding what you want to be known for.

The other part of strengthening your foundation is repairing the cracks. The silver lining of a crisis is you're able to see the cracks. The root causes of a lot of situations are seldom technical. More often than not, they involve people issues, culture, rights capabilities or processes. Standards are either broken or misaligned, so when a crisis happens, these cracks get exposed, and some of them may span the organization.

Reputation management

Naomi: A reputation is an asset that can be managed. It's a long-term process that involves plans, programs, measuring, monitoring and managing. The key term is managing. We need to manage the good, and we need to prepare for the bad.

The plans you create aren't things you put on a bookshelf once you've made them. When a new executive comes on board, you get new staff, your organization grows, your company culture shifts - all of those changes need to be noted in your crisis plans. It has to become a living, breathing document to be ready and relevant when you need it.



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