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Creating a Post-Pandemic Crisis Team

By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications

Pre-COVID, few of our clients had ever experienced a crisis event with the potential to threaten the very existence of their organization.  Now, almost everyone we talk to has had first-hand experience managing disruptions in supplies, sales, finance, staffing, production, logistics, communications, marketing and technology.  Some organizations have emerged stronger for the experience.  Some are taking a long look at their crisis management protocols and making changes to improve their ability to survive the next crisis – whether it be a global pandemic or a reputational attack on social media. And, while we know COVID-19 is still a major focus of every organization’s business recovery plan, spending some time now to think about the way you’ll respond to the next crisis would be an excellent exercise to undertake in the weeks and months ahead.

A good place to start is looking closely at the make-up of your crisis management team. Who worked well under pressure during the past six months?  What skill sets and expertise were missing?  In your organization’s darkest hour, who were the individuals you wanted sitting by your side to navigate the operational and reputational challenges you faced?

By far, the most important thing you can do is build a solid team of advisors you can trust – a group of experienced individuals who can sit at the table with you when a crisis strikes.  You won’t be an expert in everything.  That’s why you‘ll need a range of perspectives on the issue you’re facing.

A general counsel or outside attorney who can navigate the legal liabilities you may face is essential.  Wrong decisions can turn small problems into all-consuming catastrophes.

You may not be an expert on how your products are manufactured, or your services are deployed.  But someone on your operations team is.  Having that person ready to assist with strategy and execution will help identify and address the vulnerabilities you face with customers or clients and suppliers or vendors.

You’ll want someone from IT involved.  Every organization today is vulnerable to data breaches, hacks and ransomware.

Obviously, finance is important.  Your CFO should be a core member of the team.  If it’s a public company, IR should be at the table.

Because employees are essential to an organization’s success – or one of its largest vulnerabilities – HR should be part of your crisis team.  Depending on the event, you may want to engage employees as ambassadors for your brand. Or you may need to remind them of some policies and procedures that need reinforcing.

Of course, you want a skilled communicator on your team.  Someone who can bring all the messages you’re trying to communicate together.  Someone who can help you navigate the media, reassure customers or neighbors, or otherwise maintain confidence among your stakeholders. What skills should that person have?

To start, relevant experience is number one.  Proven ability to perform under fire is not a skill you can fake and not something you can learn from a book. Ability to see the big picture and look at an issue from multiple perspectives helps as well.  Everyone on your team should have that skill, but it often seems communications is the one who assumes that role.

That person should also be able to predict the reaction to what you say publicly in response to the crisis.  How many times has a badly worded apology undermined an organization’s good intentions and made a bad situation worse?

That person should also have the experience to prevent you – or your organization – from falling into traps or doing bad things.  If you’ve sold your customers a defective product or offered them a disappointing experience, providing them the opportunity to buy more of the same at a discount or experience their disappointment all over again will probably not be a welcome resolution to the problem.

Another skill your crisis communicator needs:  the ability to work well under pressure, the ability to work fast and the ability to pivot on a dime.  We often say that the news cycle has moved from 24 hours to 24 seconds. Social media now makes it imperative that you be ready to say something quickly when a crisis hits – AND that whatever you say strikes the right tone.

Another critical skill your crisis communications team member should have:  the confidence and ability to stand up to other members of the C-suite and say no and tell them why the approach they’re recommending or the words they want to use are wrong.  That can be especially intimidating when you’re face-to-face with the general counsel or very highly paid outside attorneys.

Finally, your crisis communicator should be someone you respect and trust.  Your company’s reputation and brand will be on the line during a crisis, but so will yours.  Crises are the living proof behind the saying Harry Truman made famous: “The buck stops here.”  After everything is said and done, it’s the organization’s leader who decides how a crisis will be managed, and who will be judged by what the organization said and did. But it’s your crisis communicator who will help you relay your decisions in a way that resonates with employees, shareholders, customers and other stakeholders. Once you’ve achieved that goal, you’ve taken the first step toward resolving the crisis that brought your team together to begin with.

Nora Jacobs is Senior Vice President of Hennes Communications, one of the few firms in North America focused exclusively on crisis management and crisis communications.  Should you need assistance setting up your crisis response team or perhaps our 24/7 crisis response or media training services, please give us a call at 216-321-7774.

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