Let’s say you’re in charge of communications at your organization and
you’re about to board a two-hour flight on a business trip.
After you’re buckled into your seat and you’ve dutifully turned off your
smartphone, what you do not know is that all hell is breaking loose on the
One of your organization’s employees did something disgraceful, and it was
captured on video. About the time your aircraft has reached 10,000 feet,
the video has already had 20,000 hits on social media.
Two hours later when you power up your phone, it lights up with messages.
Your mailbox is full of requests from reporters looking for a company
statement on this horrendous act. Your organization’s senior managers are
texting, calling and emailing you to get back to them quickly. Oh, and one
other thing—the airline told you your luggage is on its way to Des Moines,
and that’s not where you are.
Congratulations: Your crisis has started without you.
A little good news and a little bad news are in play.
First, the bad news: Get used to it.
Now, the good news: You can take proactive steps against those unexpected
crises, but it takes commitment on the part of your organization.
The simple solution is to create a crisis management ecosystem throughout
your organization long before you get your boarding pass. That’s your best
defense against crises that originate on or are inflamed by the web.
Back to the digital future
To effectively examine this approach, we should revisit the old way of
In the past, even the best-run organizations had crisis plans that centered
on the notion that any crisis would involve a news crew arriving on the
scene and then looking for sources. That takes time. You or someone in
leadership could have expected at least a few minutes to develop an initial
[RELATED: Keep your cool in a crisis with these 13 tips.]
Things are different now. The ubiquitous nature of smartphones and social
media have transformed that dynamic. Some events escalate in minutes and
can be seen by hundreds of thousands even before professional journalists
launch their coverage.
In the past, you could have focused your internal crisis management and
media training on having a small a window of time to prep, and a select
group of managers to train. Today, you must think more broadly. It is not
far-fetched to assume that your first line of defense is a social media
intern, an hourly worker, a receptionist or someone from accounting—anyone
who just happened to be closest to the unexpected event.
So, how can you “train” the entire organization to be nimbler in
identifying and managing a crisis?
An effective training regimen
It’s daunting to train everyone in the company to be a crisis manager, but
you can incorporate into your organization’s ecosystem a general ability to
identify the earliest stages of brewing crises.
You can create efficient reporting protocols to ensure that potential,
brewing and breaking crises can all be properly addressed.
This kind of effort has to be more than a class or workshop that only a
select few managers attend once a year. To be effective, it would have to
be implemented campaign-style throughout the organization.
Specific crisis identification and management modules can be incorporated
into standing organizational training programs, but also through employee
communications such as newsletters, blogs or videos. Provide talking points
and tip sheets to managers throughout the organization.
The key is to start the conversation and keep it going. Get people talking
about what could happen, what are the most likely sources of potential
crises, and what they should do first if it happens.
Another aspect of this training may even incorporate customer service. As
we’ve seen, poor customer service incidents make for great viral videos,
whether it be in a fast-food restaurant or on the tarmac.
The effective handling or the unexpected interactions with customers can go
a long way toward preventing the types of crises that start without you.
Although incorporating a crisis management mindset into your organization’s
ecosystem may not prevent all instances of spontaneous crises, it can
enable help your people to respond properly, even in the heat of the
Let’s go back to that initial example. Imagine if you hopped onto that
flight and everything happened as initially described—only this time, at
various levels in the organization people knew whom to contact and how to
convey what they saw, and those people immediately knew what to do with
Under that scenario, when you disembarked from your two-hour flight, a
senior manager would have left this message on your voicemail:
“We had a little flare-up on social media a little while ago, but our
customer service people are already in touch with those affected to
assess the impact on them and has committed to correcting the problem.
The individual employee at the center of the situation has been
identified and is being interviewed internally. We’re doing our own
investigation throughout the organization to see if anyone else is
affected by this sort of event. You may want to tell this to any
reporters who may call.”
Wouldn’t that be a great starting point in developing your initial media
Even though this is a hypothetical situation, it is achievable. All it
takes is proactive and ongoing training and dialogue to make sure your
organization is nimble in the face of the unexpected.
What steps has your organization taken to prepare for its next crisis?
is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications.
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