Crisis communications: Prepare for the worst

March 19, 2013

Crises come in countless forms, at all hours of the day or night, and usually when least expected. In order to effectively deal with them you need to be fast-acting, quick-thinking and level-headed. Crises unfold in the blink of an eye. Before there is time to think, crisis professionals must manage the media, their (often emotional) client, and a team which is often comprised of members with varying levels of experience handling sensitive matters. To complicate things further, there are often other external parties involved as well who might have a stake in the matter at hand, whose actions might influence messaging or affect how the story plays out.

There are no uncomplicated crises. Not one of them is ordinary and as a result crisis managers must go to extraordinary lengths to prepare for them — practicing every possible situation, anticipating repercussions and challenges before they happen. Crisis managers must prepare the client to be ready for anything and build the trust they need to face the media with confidence.

This is as much work as it sounds, and more. Most of the effort put into building worst-case scenarios and doomsday strategy documents don’t ever see the light of day. Still, it’s necessary to troll the dark corners of the imagination, fantasizing about The New York Times interview going wrong, and filling page after page with phrases designed to dig clients out of the hole. Oftentimes, the work done upfront, framing the initial media statements and crafting thoughtful responses to the public, either stops the story in its tracks or successfully shifts the spotlight away from the client.

Despite best efforts, however, sometimes even the most finely tuned statement or magnificently executed interview can’t put the brakes on the negative publicity that comes from a crisis. That’s when all those Judgment Day messages carefully prepared well in advance really pay off. No one can ever prepare for the specifics of a crisis, but they can prepare for the key concepts and practice various reactions to predictable tough questions. This kind of training makes the difference between a client coming out of an interview wearing a relieved smile or a look of utter desperation. The if “X then Y” flow charts scribbled across the conference room walls actually help navigate through what can seem like an insurmountable mountain of negative publicity.

The bottom line is that preparation pays off. In the heat of the moment, things can go wrong quickly. Anyone learning to deal with a crisis in a crisis is going to make mistakes — big mistakes, and at the time their firm or company can least afford missteps. Taking the time to prepare for the worst storm you can imagine is perhaps the best use of a nice, sunny day.