Jennifer Wilson
Crisis communications: 11 steps to success

How to get the right message to the right stakeholders at the right time.

April 1, 2013
by Jennifer Wilson

Litigation. Untimely death. Natural disasters.

These and other significant events—including unexpected departures and client losses—affect our firms, sometimes suddenly and without warning. When a crisis hits, most leaders are so consumed managing the impacts or the details that they forget the most important element of successful crisis management: communicating the right message to the right stakeholder group at the right time. Let’s explore 11 crisis communications steps that can minimize a threat and (maybe) even produce positive benefits.

Before the crisis or life event occurs (that means now!)

  1. Establish a crisis team. Begin your planning by developing a crisis team consisting of leaders who represent the multiple disciplines and stakeholders in your firm. That way, members clearly understand the impact a crisis situation would have on each stakeholder. Select natural leaders who are accountable, consistent, loyal, discreet, and able to communicate well.
  2. Communicate with your staff and customers. Tell your staff and key clients who is on the crisis team and how they can be reached. That way, your team and key clients will know whom to reach out to in the case of an emergency.
  3. Consider your potential communications methods and timing. With the proliferation of social media, texting, and 24-hour news, expect your crisis news to travel at light speed. If your news is considered an opportunity by your competitors, they may help the news travel even faster to clients, prospects, and referral sources. Plan to use the most expedient methods available to keep your stakeholders informed. Social media, intranets, and texting also offer an excellent resource for your firm communications when traditional phone and face-to-face interactions are not available. Many firms have established text groups, private Twitter accounts, or other mediums to reach their team members in a crisis or emergency.
  4. Organize and document your protocol. Meet with the crisis team on a regular basis and develop plans of action to handle various crisis scenarios. You should also:
    • Establish a “chain of command” for each scenario and assign leadership and decision-making responsibilities. Consider scenarios in which the firm’s leader is incapacitated. Identify who would step in and make decisions in those situations;
    • Identify who will do what and in what order;
    • Outline who your internal and external “audiences” are, then determine how you will contact them and in what order;
    • Put the plan in writing;
    • Practice or “test” the plan at least once a year;
    • Update the plan frequently.

When facing a potential crisis

  1. Assert leadership. When a crisis occurs, the designated leader must immediately take charge and notify the members of the crisis team. The team should assess the situation, compare it to scenarios developed during the planning process and agree to any changes in action based on the differences in the real-life situation. Once the group has declared a clear plan of action, the leader of the firm should verbally state that the plan is “in action.” Members with assignments should be empowered to begin, then held accountable for performing their assigned tasks.
  2. Stay cool. Above all, crisis team leaders should remain calm, work hard at being unemotional, and exude confidence that the situation will be managed in a positive manner. Breakdowns, recriminations, negativity, or expressions of doubt will only divide the team and worsen the crisis. If a key team member has passed away, grieving is natural, but leaders must remember that their team will be seeking compassion and strength and that the leader will need to exhibit both.
  3. Develop a first response. Internal and external communication is critical during a crisis, especially in the early stages. The crisis team should meet immediately (by phone if necessary) to craft an initial communication to stakeholders. Be sure to consider all the different constituencies and establish the order in which you will contact them. Seek legal counsel if necessary. For highly sensitive matters, communicate the message to the appropriate audiences using one official spokesperson from the firm. In a crisis with a high risk of legal or other negative consequences, it is critical that you appoint a single official spokesperson for external communications to ensure consistency, minimize confusion, and reduce the risk that damaging comments or statements will be made.
  4. Plan the message and confirm the channels. Your initial message should reflect that the firm is taking responsibility for the resolution of the crisis, if appropriate, and reinforce the firm’s record and commitment relative to the situation. The communication should express your commitment to whatever next steps are planned and who can be reached for comment or assistance. Crisis team members and other firm leaders should be armed with a written position statement to guide their response to internal and external inquiries after the initial communication occurs. In legal matters, lawyers should review these position statements, and external inquiries should be directed to a single spokesperson without fail, to minimize the firm’s risk. In situations where you expect to field many inquiries—as in the case of the sudden departure or death of a key team member—and many clients may need to be contacted at once, you may want to create a “frequently asked questions” document to guide leaders or other externally facing team members in answers to anticipated questions.
  5. Stay visible. The crisis team leader should stay close to the parties affected by the event. Continue meeting with the crisis team to reassess the situation and identify any actions or changes that need to be made to address evolving circumstances. Remain visible throughout the crisis and avoid being perceived as “hiding.”
  6. Stay in touch. If the crisis is expected to continue for a prolonged period, as might be the case with litigation or an economic downturn, keep your stakeholders informed on a regular basis about the crisis status and what they can expect next. In the absence of information, people make up their own, and it is often negative. Manage the interpretations of your audience by communicating regularly and with as much transparency and hope as possible.  
  7. Learn and improve. When the event has passed, meet with your crisis team to assess what worked well and what you would change going forward. Update your crisis plan accordingly.

We all think it can’t happen to us and, hopefully, most crises will not. But every firm faces a difficult situation at some point. Even a “smaller” crisis can and should be managed proactively and strategically. Either you manage the crisis—and the message—or allow it to manage you.

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com.