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Prevent PR Disaster: 6 Steps for Crisis Planning

No one wants to think about the prospects for threats or calamities. But when they happen--as they inevitably will--you will be very glad you thought through how to react, before that reaction was needed.
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On a dark and stormy night, while dining in a high-end chain restaurant, the fire alarm went off. What happened next revealed an enterprise that either lacked a crisis plan or was totally absent crisis training--or both. The waiters stood around, chuckled, and said it was a false alarm. They failed to acknowledge a hard-and-fast rule of 21st century life: when a fire alarm sounds, people must exit the building. Period. It took about five minutes for a guy in a suit to show up and motion for us to leave the building.

Out we went into a raging storm, 100 frustrated diners huddled under the front portico. It was unclear which was more dangerous--standing out in the rain with thunder and lightning (and multiple tornado warnings nearby) or being inside with a noisy, and possibly bogus, alarm. But the staff seemingly gave no thought to weighing our security or safety, inside or out. We stood there for 30 minutes. At no time did anyone tell us what was going on, whether we could access our cars in the garage, or how long it might be before we had answers. When the all clear came, we left. A casual "oops, we're sorry" and confused response from the management team just left a bad taste. Wont' be dining there any time soon.

All businesses need a crisis management plan with essential training that also ensures all members of the team have the know-how to act when fires, severe storms, workplace accidents, or dangerous behaviors happen. Your reputation depends on it.

Here are some things to consider to create a plan for your enterprise:

1. Identify the Crisis Leadership Team

Identify who in the organization will take the lead on managing the crisis and then define the specific roles and responsibilities of each team member. Typically this team would include CEO, COO, VP/Director of Communications, General Counsel, and key division heads who are responsible for specific lines of business, programs or services. In a customer service environment, it may be the manager on duty. Make contingencies for team members who might be unavailable during the crisis and understand who would substitute in to fill those critical roles. Make available home, work and cell phone numbers, as well as email addresses and twitter handles. If there is a natural disaster, like an earthquake or storm, there may be interruptions in phones or Internet services, so be prepared to go with old-school communications--like bull horns or even personnel-turned-foot messengers. And above all, make sure one of these people steps up to actually lead.

2. Develop Clear Crisis Response Protocols

Create crisis response protocols that offer a guide for what to do and how begin to manage once a crisis ensues. Because no crisis is text book, these protocols provide a series of action steps and questions that need to be answered. Sample protocols might include:

• Determine whether there are any life safety issues and ensure that affected individuals and divisions are safe.
• Assess threats to life, to external partners, clients, etc. and to the company's reputation, finances and well being.
• Determine who needs to be informed about the crisis immediately. The "who" might include police, fire or other emergency responders; outside attorneys or family members if there has been an accident; and others such as employees, subcontractors, key partners or investors. Have those numbers handy and accessible.
• Determine all of the audiences with whom you will need to communicate throughout the duration of the crisis and beyond. And don't ignore the personnel or patrons in your sight.

3. Develop Checklists

Instead of creating a huge notebook that is unusable because of its complexity, consider developing checklists of tasks and/or key questions that various crisis team members need to answer to move forward. In the case of our restaurant, laminated cards that wait staff and others could keep in their pockets--or even posted in key places like kitchen or host stations--may be helpful. Keep the language simple and short. For multi-lingual staff members, translate into relevant languages.

4. Develop Protocols for Communicating With Key Audiences During and After the Crisis

Develop protocols for how to communicate:
• With family members/next of kin if someone is gravely injured or dies while on the job
• With employees--being clear about how much and when to share information, and what to say to family, friends, and passers-by about the crisis (remember that an all-employee announcement is essentially a public announcement)
• With clients, investors, donors and others who may concerned about their own health and well-being and that of your company or organization
• With the media, who may already be onsite asking questions and may have already talked employees at your company or organization.
Identify who will be the lead spokesperson and who will be responsible for drafting statements, press releases memos, tweets, and other communications, as well as handling inquiries from first responders, customers and the media.

5. Train, Train, Train

It's not enough to have plan. You must make sure that everyone in your organization is aware of it and what their role is. Conduct drills at least once a quarter and make sure every new employee understands the crisis plan as part of the onboarding process.

6. Update Your Plan

Once you have developed your plan, make sure you update contact lists and other protocols. It is a good idea to review your plan, at the very least, on an annual basis. Review and update much more frequently if you are in an the hospitality industry or in an industry where there may be higher levels of danger, such as construction or NGO's or companies working in hot spots around the world.

No one wants to think about the prospects for threats or calamities. But when they happen--as they inevitably will--you will be very glad you thought through how to react, before that reaction was needed. Having a crisis communications plan, with solid training to back it up, will help protect lives, fortify your reputation, mitigate possible legal action, and make resolving a bad situation so much easier.

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