By Fflur Sheppard

I came across a quote recently that made me smile because it underlined the value of crisis planning.

It was Henry Kissinger, statesman and controversial Nobel Peace Prize winner, who said: “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Kissinger was plainly joking – he knew what all crisis management PR advisors know… a crisis has no respect for your diary.

But by engaging in crisis planning, and making sure that a crisis communications strategy is central to it, a fraught situation can be made less nerve-wracking.

If you wait until a crisis hits to establish who is responsible for what, you lose time, it becomes hugely stressful and people end up working at cross-purposes. And your reputation suffers on top of whatever else is unfolding.

Going into a crisis situation where even the basics have not been decided – such as who will sign off media relations statements – leads to unnecessary confusion and delay.

Establish who you're dealing with

I use the acronym RACI – Responsible, Accountable, Consult, Inform – in crisis planning for how you establish who you are dealing with.

Responsible refers to the person or people working on the response. One person, usually a press officer or PR agency consultant, needs to lead on this. They hold the pen and write the statement, gathering the information needed to do so. This person needs to be assigned their role as soon as possible (in advance, if possible) so they can start their job as soon as a crisis hits.

The Accountable person will be whoever has sign-off on the statement and approach. Do you know who will be approving it? Does it have to go to the CEO for final approval? In what circumstances do you need to get the legal department involved?

On the road to that statement, there will be several people you will have to Consult, for example the management of the establishment at the centre of the crisis. You may need to consult with numerous people and teams to get the full picture. 

There is a huge amount of people in a large organisation that you have to Inform. Internal comms won’t be involved in the strategic statement but we need to make sure that colleagues know about it. Internal comms can adapt the statement for their own purposes but it has to be consistent and part of a cohesive whole. If it differs or undermines the external statements, the Press will be on it.

With even a RACI outline, you’ll have the beginnings of a crisis response plan in place. The next step is to develop a crisis communications strategy – or even a pre-crisis strategy – that sits alongside it to handle media relations.

It’s always a good idea to have someone who understands reputation management sitting around the table when important business decisions are being made.  They will be able to pre-empt crisises before they happen, just as a health and safety manager can from a practical perspective.

Also, you have to be aware that you can’t rely on a crisis manual to get you through the tough times. It’s like a roadmap printed just before a mudslide. They’re all very well and good but effectively redundant unless your team is able to spot a potential crisis looming.

Media training replicates stress

If you’ve never experienced a full-blown crisis, then you’re in for a challenging time when one does arrive. Fortunately, that level of stress can be replicated in media training.

We can run full simulations with actors in character and the emergency services lending authenticity to events, while the media relentlessly pursue their story. There’s no substitute for that kind of experience – it’s proper training that gets a footballer match-fit, and the same counts for crisis management.

We can train people in how to assess and react appropriately to a crisis, how and when to respond to the media and what kind of messages they will need to draft.

The training underlines the need to put in place those RACI structures so the crisis management PR advisors have access to the appropriately specialised people in the event that they have to react.

Before training, there are other actions we can take that help your crisis planning. For example, we can audit your digital footprint for potential weaknesses, assess for risks, stress test the in-house team in the practical process of managing a crisis and get them up to speed on spotting potential areas of difficulty.

Crisis planning, at its simplest, is about knowing where responsibility lies for key actions. The situation may vary, but having the structures in place to allow your crisis management team to communicate effectively internally to provide the best possible response to external pressures is the very minimum yours should do.

For help and advice call our crisis management experts now on 0800 612 9890.