July 10, 2014
At some point, and it happens in all associations at one time or another, the leadership will receive a phone call from the media about something that has either just happened or is about to happen – asking for leadership’s comment.
You sense a giant wave coming at you, as in the picture here with the wave about to break – over you.
As the leadership is listening to the member of the media ask the question about the incident, beads of sweat begin to form as we wonder why we answered the phone that day instead of taking a long lunch – as the incident and the media questions about the incident, will not be pleasant.
The response to the phone call, and everything the association does in the first fifteen minutes after the phone call, will determine how well the association and its members manage the crisis that just landed on their collective doorsteps.
If this sounds ominous, it is. In more than two decades of dealing with crises in the energy industry ranging from 100 year cold snaps to price spikes to government investigations to bad energy policy ideas to members going out of business suddenly, there was never a shortage of opportunities to practice the skills of managing a crisis. Part of how to deal with these crises can be taught and part can only be truly learned and appreciated by being in the middle of one with someone who knows how to handle the combination of unreasonable demands and too little time.
The part where we can learn comes from, as with most things in life, planning. Every association needs a crisis communications plan that has been thoroughly thought out and that every member of leadership knows by heart – and is prepared to engage at a moment’s notice because that is exactly when it will be needed.
What’s in the crisis communications plan? As with any strategic planning, this is an exercise involving paid and volunteer leaders and everyone needs to align their commitments and thinking in constructing and deploying the plan for it to work.
- Who is on the crisis communications team? The paid leadership and certain volunteer leaders who are committed to being available 24/7;
- Define what a crisis is and when the crisis communications plan is invoked;
- Establishing the goals of the crisis communications plan. Our story needs to be out first, fully and truthfully, so that our side of what has happened or is about to happen gets to the media quickly and accurately. Discourage people from thinking bad news will go away – it never does. Make sure your message[s] are stated simply and are easy to communicate;
- Understand that the media is not the enemy. The media is how you will accurately and truthfully communicate your story in a credible, accessible way in order to make sure your association and its member’s views are properly represented.
- Have instant access to the information you absolutely have to have in order to keep all of your constituencies informed and keep yourself ahead of the story. Good information and lots of it keeps you at the center of the story and relied upon for what is unfolding;
- The fight for truth is the first order of business and that is the touchstone against which all other elements of the plan are tested and measured. The team needs the whole story and so do your members and the media – and the team needs to speak the truth with a single voice;
- Prepare and drill – then drill and prepare. Finding out whether your crisis communications plan works or not when an actual crisis hits is a bad idea. Test the plan and its operational elements by suddenly and without notice springing a test on your group and see how they all work together;
- Management after the first wave. The crisis is never a one-off and you’re done. Most will involve follow-up and potentially hours and days of challenges as the crisis plays itself out. The end result of the crisis will be determined, to some extent, by how well it is managed from its onset in the first 15 minutes through to its conclusion.
- Get outstanding, seasoned help. Never represent yourself in a crisis – make sure that there is a knowledgeable, seasoned, battle-tested professional by your side with the perspective to see what those in the midst of the crisis might miss.
This plan gets written down. It is kept simple and easy to understand with everyone’s contact information. It is drilled and practiced. You’ll thank me for the association equivalent of passing a kidney stone the day you get your first crisis media call.
We were interviewing PR agencies once with our volunteer committee and were wracking our brains trying to come up with how we would conduct our interviews – then it struck us. We don’t need to be creative – that’s what we need them to be – so let’s come up with a hypothetical and let each candidate have 10 minutes to come up with how he or she would handle it.
That’s what we did.
We interviewed five candidates. Each of the five was given a hypothetical […that was actually something we had really had to deal with…] and then each individually were taken to a small conference room for 10 minutes to consider how to help us. Upon their return, each was graded on how well they did.
- a member who has a broad customer base with significant financial commitments suddenly goes out of business and the local media gets wind of it and call you for comment on the impact on consumers. Shortly after that, government officials get wind of the same thing and they start calling. Then other members call. Then legislators speak about the need to regulate in the area and you are asked what you think of that, given the consumer impact.
- there is a 100 year cold snap that follows a 30 year historic warm period. The unexpected change in weather has caught your industry with slack inventory and prices begin to spike on the weather and expected demand. As prices rise the media wants to know how high can prices go – government wants to know why prices are rising – media asks what’s going on – consumers call wanting answers.
Most crises you cannot see coming. The only thing that you and your group can do well is to have planned for its arrival and know how to handle it when it arrives.
It is coming.