If there is one lesson every business owner should learn from 2020, it is “expect the unexpected.”
None of us could have foreseen how 2020 would play out. Most business owners and CEOs faced circumstances that they could never have anticipated. Consider the plight of the community bank CEO forced to close branches due to the COVID-19 outbreak, or who had to establish contact tracing procedures because a teller tested positive at one of the busiest branches. How do you convey those messages to employees, shareholders and customers and reassure them that the situation is under control? Or the restaurant/function hall forced to cancel weddings, anniversaries and other events that had been booked more than a year in advance. How do you communicate that bad news to customers, and what can you do to prepare for any fallout from these actions?
We can’t anticipate what lies ahead, but we can be better prepared for the unknown with a crisis communication plan.
Crisis communications plans are a little like insurance policies. We buy them hoping we’ll never need them but we feel better knowing that we have protection if we do.
A formal crisis communication plan won’t make the pandemic go away, nor will it prevent a disgruntled customer from writing a negative Yelp review. What it will do, though, is provide you with a blueprint to respond more immediately and more effectively to any negative news that you need to deal with. This blueprint will save time and avoid confusion in those early minutes or hours between when something happens and when the business or organization formally reacts. Remember, it’s better to get out in front of something proactively than wait and react after the fact.
Here’s how to get started.
- Develop a list of people with whom you should communicate if there is an unexpected event. This list should include employees, customers, stakeholders (Directors, Advisors), and potentially media outlets. This list should be reviewed and updated regularly. It is advisable to have physical addresses, phones, and email addresses for everyone on the list so that if you need to communicate to this audience you aren’t wasting valuable time looking for this information.
- Determine what communication channels you will use to deliver the message. These channels may include email, Facebook, text messaging, traditional mail, telephone and in some cases videoconferencing.
- Each business or organization should have an authorized spokesperson for the company or organization in the event of a need to communicate about an unusual incident. Often, this individual will be the CEO. Inform all employees and others who have positions of importance with the organization (such as directors, advisors, or shareholders) that it is this individual alone who is authorized to speak on behalf of the company. Be certain that you have buy-in from all these stakeholders and individuals, and impress upon them that their only responsibility is to refer the questions to the spokesperson. This is important enough to require everyone to sign a document attesting that they understand the role of a spokesperson. And of course make sure that all employees and other stakeholders have contact information to reach the spokesperson if it is necessary.
- Plan the specific message that you will communicate. Be certain that what you say is straightforward, addresses the situation, and offers a corrective action if one is needed. As an example, if you have had an employee test positive for COVID-19, it is important that you inform other employees, advisors and customers who may have had interaction with this employee. Inform your audience of the incident and the steps that have been taken (i.e., we closed the store for eight hours to perform a deep cleaning, we have protocols in place that employees follow). The message should be factual and reassuring.
- As part of the communications plan, develop a FAQ page about the company: its history, role in the community, and products and services. This is a useful document to share if you encounter less-than-friendly questioners.
- Practice a “what if” scenario with your leadership team. Role-play through the steps and processes of communication so that people are comfortable with the idea and the procedures. Have your team review and critique any communications. Have the spokesperson try her/his hand at addressing concerns.
If your company or organization doesn’t have a crisis communications plan, make this is a priority in 2021. If there is a silver lining to 2020, it is that we have learned some lessons about how to do things better than we once did. I will hearken back to the motto I learned as a Scout many years ago: Be prepared.
Happy New Year!