COMMENTARY

6 tips for improving your crisis communications plan

The time to start planning for scandal is now

Joyce Bosc is president and CEO of Boscobel Marketing Communications Inc.

No matter how it happens, when any organization faces a crisis, it never ceases to amaze me how the wide array of poorly thought-out crisis communications efforts is publicly exposed for the world to see.

With greater government scrutiny, oversight, transparency and calls for accountability, it’s no time for government contractors to take unnecessary risks in crisis communications. Public outcry in the aftermath of a crisis can lead to penalties, legislation or regulation of your firm or industry.

Undoubtedly, your organization’s status as a government contractor can greatly increase the chances that a crisis will move your company from the business section to the front page. The recent contract suspension and executive departures at GTSI underscore the highly publicized challenges such organizations face. When appropriately addressed, crisis communications helps shorten the duration of bad news in many situations while mitigating further damage to both the organization and its reputation in the marketplace.

By crisis, I mean any event that is or could be threatening to people or property, business continuity, your brand reputation or shareholder value. Long after a crisis has passed, your organization, clients and business development staff may continue to wrestle with the aftereffects. As a result, it’s essential to build crisis communications into your organization’s communications plan.

Here are some important elements to consider:

1) Set up a team. Your crisis communications team creates the plan and handles crises as they arise. Be sure to include members from your public relations, legal, security, operations, finance and human resources departments. Typically, public relations takes the lead in a crisis, so let everyone know that all crisis-related questions and/or interview requests must go straight to the PR department. Crisis situations are no time to allow anyone to speculate or share “just between us” information. Loose lips tend to produce unflattering news clips.

2) Before a crisis, plan for the worst. Meet with company executives to determine vulnerabilities, review crises faced by other contractors in the past and build your plan. The plan must address areas such as partner relationships, certifications and ethics policies. The most effective crisis communications plans deliver a rapid response – often within an hour of any given crisis event. This helps to maintain a semblance of control and prevent rumors from spreading. That means having a plan, practicing it and keeping it updated.

3) Identify and train spokespersons. Designate specific individuals to represent the company to all external audiences. Formally train representatives to handle tough questions and sensitive issues while remaining confident, poised, open and reliable. Rehearse plausible answers and develop “shells” of prepared statements to help address difficult questions. Remember to steer clear of jargon, and never say “no comment.” That will only imply your organization has something to hide. Thorough crisis plans also allow for a trained back-up spokesperson, just in case.

4) Set up notification systems. A mass notification system with more than one component helps ensure you'll reach everyone. A specific crisis Web page can deliver immediate, authorized news from the official source. An intranet site also creates a direct channel to specified stakeholders. Automated phone calling or text messaging enables all parties involved to stay updated, even when they're away from their computers.

5) Forewarned is forearmed. By attending government events and meetings, you may hear rumors and/or gossip, which could signal trouble ahead. When employees hear something negative, they should contact a department head and the PR office. Gossip and bad news travel fast, whether inside or outside the Beltway. The crisis communications team can address each situation to determine potential next steps.

6) Keep your promises. After the worst is over, make good on any promises your organization made to provide ongoing information. Regular updates are an essential element of any crisis communications follow-up plan. If you skip this part, you could reignite questions about the original crisis and make a bad situation seem even worse.

Advance planning can mean the difference between a minor hiccup and a crisis that haunts your company for months -- or even years. Get started today on a crisis communications plan that helps you quickly deliver a clear, consistent message to address the situation and protect the company’s standing in the contracting and government communities.

About the Author

Joyce Bosc (jbosc@boscobel.com) is president and chief executive officer of the public relations firm, Boscobel Marketing Communications.

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