From PR analyst to crisis comms hero: How to leverage planning to mitigate risks

Risks are omnipresent. But does it mean that communicators are equipped to deal with risks? 

For PR practitioners, 2020 reinforced three ideas:

  1. Risks are omnipresent;
  2. Communicators should plan and prepare for the worst;
  3. When the s*** hits the fan, it’s all about turning risks and threats into opportunities to do better for when the next crisis comes.

Crisis comms literature can sometimes be guilty of putting too much emphasis on response strategies. But prevention is better than cure, so communicators must ensure that they spend enough time locating and reducing risks before they are faced with an emerging situation.

Typically, the lifecycle of a crisis looks like this: it all begins from a pre-crisis phase, then a catalyst will trigger a crisis, a response plan will be implemented, which should hopefully pave the way to recovery.

I love this quote by Bazerman and Watkins (2004), that “crises are predictable surprises”. It holds a lot of truth. This is essentially great news for us communicators, that crises are predictable surprises. Why? Because it empowers us to predict these phenomena to prevent them from happening in the first place and mitigate potential damage.

So what we can do before, during, and after a crisis happens?

Pre-crisis phase

This is by far when all the leg work happens. This is why the pre-crisis phase is called the preparation phase. Preparation is absolutely key to the effective delivery of a crisis comms plan. And there are a number of elements and planning exercises that communicators can carry out ahead of time.

So where can we start looking for good data and insights?

1.    Understand your brand/organisation’s promise

First and foremost, you want to understand all the ins and outs of the organisation you work for and understand the brand’s promise. The promise made to your stakeholders is pivotal.

Think about it: deep existential crises occur precisely when a promise is broken by something the organisation’s done or is being done on behalf of the organisation. So, make sure that you understand the essence of your organisation’s pledge and get a sense of how stakeholders perceive the promise that is being made to them. Whenever that promise is broken will be an issue.

2.    Build situational awareness

Once you’ve done this work, looking inwards, you can start looking outwards by mapping out all the different external forces at play: competitors, industry environment, market place, any current hot topics, etc.

In fact, you want to be in a position where you know your organisation so well (internally and externally), that should anything emerge, you would be the first one to know. The last thing you want when we talk about crises is to have someone else tell you that you have a crisis on your hands.

Remember: crises are all about perceptions. If your customers or stakeholders see you in a crisis, then you are in a crisis.

3.    Map out your stakeholders

No matter what kind of crisis you are faced with, chances are that you’ll need to interact with core groups of people and other external agents.

So, make sure that you differentiate your primary from your secondary stakeholders.

Primary stakeholders are those people who are essential to the survival of the organisation and its ability to function properly. Because primary stakeholders are key, they are also the ones who could harm the organisation (purposefully or without malice). Treat them with special importance.

Secondary stakeholders are influencers who are affected by the organisation. Secondary stakeholders include groups such as the media, campaigners and customers.

Once you’ve identified the different groups, analyse them by order of influence and potential impact on your organisation and prioritise them to work out a plan of engagement.

4.    Identify potential risks

Crises can be the result of incidents or issues coming from internal or external sources:

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Depending on the nature of your business and the type of environment that you operate in, risks could arise from different sources. So make sure that you map these out clearly.

5.    Understand your trigger points

Whether we are talking about the results of incidents of issues, crises are the results of specific trigger points or catalysts, that will trigger the crisis. These triggering events have the ability to change the course of your communication plans and derail a whole organisation’s strategy.

So, ensure that you review potential anniversary dates commemorating sensitive events, certain pieces of news, social events, inquiries, legal investigations, new laws, financial issues, but also think about what your competitors could do that could directly or indirectly affect you.

6.    Establish a mitigation

Prevention is better than cure. We all know this. So the key is to limit these risks that we are already aware of by preventing them from becoming larger issues turning into actual crises.

I really like this solution-driven approach by Amanda Coleman from her book Crisis Communication Strategies (2020). She advises crisis managers to score risks by order of importance or priority and list the different implications, impact and mitigation mechanisms to create a map of hotspots. This is a brilliant way of thinking about risk, especially if you are not sure where to start:

To conclude this preparation phase, make sure that as you do this work, you compile your findings and your insights into a framework (yes, we always love a framework!). This framework will constitute the basis of the crisis response plan.

Once the crisis plan is drafted, it’s time to stress-test and rehearse the plan with real-life scenarios. Scenario planning will enable you to be more creative with the types of situations that might arise so regularly reviewing and improving the plan is essential.

At first, this preparation work will be time-consuming and labour-intensive. But once it’s ready, a monthly or quarterly review (depending on your activities), should be sufficient.

Crisis phase

With crises, it is often not a question of “if” but a question of “when”. So, when a crisis occurs, what can we do?

Chances are that a chain of events will unfold at (what feels like) the speed of light. So:

  1. Make sure that you have the right monitoring in place. You’ll want to have the right quantity but most importantly the right quality of information at your disposal to make the right decisions. Remember to monitor both internal and external activities. If inaccurate statements are made, correct them as soon as you can.
  2. Check that your channels and your content are appropriate. Is it appropriate for you to undertake mass communication on social media? Are you targeting the right audience? Is your messaging/narrative consistent across the different channels and platforms? Are you putting people first? All these questions will need to be carefully assessed.
  3. Debrief your crisis comms plan as soon as you can. It’s likely that things will not go as planned, so you’ll have to increase your reporting needs to debrief and reassess the plan. Priorities will evolve quickly, so perhaps you’ll be able to identify new more efficient ways to communicate with the required groups (especially those affected by the issue). Listening is a salient part in managing consequences. So make sure you do.
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Post-crisis phase

Listening to your stakeholders should give you a sense of when is a good time to move on to the recovery phase.

Not having the right monitoring tools in that regard could be extremely damaging to the organisation: if the recovery phase is initiated as people are still dealing with the aftermath of the issue, you will be criticised for being insensitive or failing to understand the gravity of what happened.

So, understanding your audiences and those who are at the heart of the issue will give you an indicator of when is a good time to lay the foundations for repair. Remember that timing is key here.

Once the time is right, the long-term recovery of the business will require extensive work. The crisis management team will have to:

  1. Evaluate the efficiency of the response plan and get an idea of the organisation’s new reputational profile. Both internal and external sources should be reviewed and analysed. In doing so, it will be important to assess the organisation’s response to the crisis and the narrative that it attempted to convey, to draw some comparisons with how audiences and stakeholders reacted to these announcements and perceived the organisation’s position. It is not uncommon to see discrepancies between an official communication and what stakeholders believe in and remember. So you’ll need to get a clear understanding of this.
  2. Use this analysis and these insights to rebuild what needs to be rebuilt. Are there any outstanding issues that remain? What are the factors that could still impact your business? But also, think about the resources that you’ll have at hand to help you. Communicators often find themselves having to deal with the aftermath of the crisis while at the same time having to prepare for recovery. So, the communication function will be under pressure, and this needs to be accounted for.
  3. Work with the SMT to re-establish the brand. The issues that occurred during the crisis will need to be accounted for when procedures, objectives and policies are redefined. Most of the time, recovery should not imply a return to previous normality. If a crisis hits, you want to use this learning experience to improve your processes, do better and communicate this clearly to your stakeholders.

Handling crises is not easy, but with the right amount of preparation, PR practitioners and crisis managers can mitigate risks and manage consequences more effectively and efficiently. Nobody can start drafting a crisis comms plan as they are faced with an emerging situation, so time and resources must be invested well ahead of time.

Remember that it is often not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’ a crisis hits. To a large extent, crises are predictable events. So it is very likely that at some point in your career, you will be presented with an opportunity to do better. Now the question is: will you be ready?

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