Let’s say you’re in charge of communications at your organization and you’re about to board a two-hour flight on a business trip.
After you’re buckled into your seat and you’ve dutifully turned off your smartphone, what you do not know is that all hell is breaking loose on the ground.
One of your organization’s employees did something disgraceful, and it was captured on video. About the time your aircraft has reached 10,000 feet, the video has already had 20,000 hits on social media.
Two hours later when you power up your phone, it lights up with messages.
Your mailbox is full of requests from reporters looking for a company statement on this horrendous act. Your organization’s senior managers are texting, calling and emailing you to get back to them quickly. Oh, and one other thing—the airline told you your luggage is on its way to Des Moines, and that’s not where you are.
Congratulations: Your crisis has started without you.
A little good news and a little bad news are in play.
First, the bad news: Get used to it.
Now, the good news: You can take proactive steps against those unexpected crises, but it takes commitment on the part of your organization.
The simple solution is to create a crisis management ecosystem throughout your organization long before you get your boarding pass. That’s your best defense against crises that originate on or are inflamed by the web.
Back to the digital future
To effectively examine this approach, we should revisit the old way of doing things.
In the past, even the best-run organizations had crisis plans that centered on the notion that any crisis would involve a news crew arriving on the scene and then looking for sources. That takes time. You or someone in leadership could have expected at least a few minutes to develop an initial response.
Things are different now. The ubiquitous nature of smartphones and social media have transformed that dynamic. Some events escalate in minutes and can be seen by hundreds of thousands even before professional journalists launch their coverage.
In the past, you could have focused your internal crisis management and media training on having a small a window of time to prep, and a select group of managers to train. Today, you must think more broadly. It is not far-fetched to assume that your first line of defense is a social media intern, an hourly worker, a receptionist or someone from accounting—anyone who just happened to be closest to the unexpected event.
So, how can you “train” the entire organization to be nimbler in identifying and managing a crisis?
An effective training regimen
It’s daunting to train everyone in the company to be a crisis manager, but you can incorporate into your organization’s ecosystem a general ability to identify the earliest stages of brewing crises.
You can create efficient reporting protocols to ensure that potential, brewing and breaking crises can all be properly addressed.
This kind of effort has to be more than a class or workshop that only a select few managers attend once a year. To be effective, it would have to be implemented campaign-style throughout the organization.
Specific crisis identification and management modules can be incorporated into standing organizational training programs, but also through employee communications such as newsletters, blogs or videos. Provide talking points and tip sheets to managers throughout the organization.
The key is to start the conversation and keep it going. Get people talking about what could happen, what are the most likely sources of potential crises, and what they should do first if it happens.
Another aspect of this training may even incorporate customer service. As we’ve seen, poor customer service incidents make for great viral videos, whether it be in a fast-food restaurant or on the tarmac.
The effective handling or the unexpected interactions with customers can go a long way toward preventing the types of crises that start without you.
Although incorporating a crisis management mindset into your organization’s ecosystem may not prevent all instances of spontaneous crises, it can enable help your people to respond properly, even in the heat of the moment.
Let’s go back to that initial example. Imagine if you hopped onto that flight and everything happened as initially described—only this time, at various levels in the organization people knew whom to contact and how to convey what they saw, and those people immediately knew what to do with that information.
Under that scenario, when you disembarked from your two-hour flight, a senior manager would have left this message on your voicemail:
“We had a little flare-up on social media a little while ago, but our customer service people are already in touch with those affected to assess the impact on them and has committed to correcting the problem. The individual employee at the center of the situation has been identified and is being interviewed internally. We’re doing our own investigation throughout the organization to see if anyone else is affected by this sort of event. You may want to tell this to any reporters who may call.”
Wouldn’t that be a great starting point in developing your initial media statement?
Even though this is a hypothetical situation, it is achievable. All it takes is proactive and ongoing training and dialogue to make sure your organization is nimble in the face of the unexpected.
What steps has your organization taken to prepare for its next crisis?
Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.