The first step in communicating about an event that places your organization’s reputation at risk is a thorough understanding of the roles and responsibilities required for a successful response.
Depending on your organization’s mission and the type of situation you’re facing some of the concepts discussed in this article will be appropriate, others not. You’ll have to rely on your professional judgment to make that determination.
However, the basic roles and responsibilities of a crisis communications team do not change regardless of the size or mission of your organization.
The roles are:
- Team leader
- Administrative coordinator
This article discusses the role and responsibilities of the crisis communications team leader. Future articles will cover the other roles.
The crisis communications team leader
The team leader is responsible for forming and training the crisis communications team, developing and implementing the crisis communications plan, counseling management and providing the working environment and support necessary for the communications team to succeed defending the organization’s reputation.
The team leader will often be pulled in different directions, especially in the first few hours. This will minimize the direct interaction the leader would want to have with the team during this critical time.
This requires that the crisis response plan contain the detail and specificity needed so the most junior member of the team can implement it with confidence. Conducting periodic practice drills and tabletop exercises will allow each member of the team to become familiar with the plan.
In the first moments of a crisis the team leader must ensure work is progressing on the initial statement and, with the team analyst, determine the media triage and media monitoring priorities. Team members must be encouraged to take initiative to comply with actions and decisions contained in the plan.
Initial crisis response statement
The initial statement must be released within an hour of being notified about the situation to establish your organization as a source of confirmed information. Although there may not be answers to even the most basic questions the initial statement can at least explain what your organization is doing to respond.
On July 17, 1996 TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747-131 jet en route from New York to Paris with 230 passengers and crew, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff from Kennedy Airport at about 8:31 p.m.
The airline failed to provide a statement – or a spokesperson – until nearly three hours later, causing reporters and, more importantly, family members to doubt the airline’s ability to respond to the crisis.
Although very few facts were known an initial statement could have included confirmed information, what the airline was doing to respond, how family members could obtain information and that TWA was cooperating with the investigation.
Instead, coverage of the tragedy quickly included questions about TWA’s competency.
There is a thorough discussion about initial statements and an example of a “boilerplate” and initial statement in When the Balloon Goes Up: The Communicator’s Guide to Crisis Response.
Media triage and monitoring
Although you would like to satisfy everyone’s queries expeditiously it’s not always possible because of the volume of requests. The triage list prioritizes which media outlets have priority and helps spokespeople manage their time in difficult conditions.
For example, during the 1993 Diet Pepsi syringe crisis, which turned out to be a hoax, the PepsiCo national public relations team received 1500 media calls. The team determined the media triage list in the opening moments of the crisis. By 11:00 that evening the team had returned nearly all the calls. A year after the crisis PepsiCo Public Relations Director Rebecca Madeira told me they could never have accomplished that without a media triage plan.
You may never face that deluge of calls but if you are working with a small team, or by yourself, 40 calls can seem just as overwhelming as 1500.
Typically media triage categories are:
- Priority A. Answer or return calls from these outlets immediately.
- Priority B. Answer or return calls from these outlets as soon as possible.
- Priority C. Answer or return calls from these outlets when able.
Changes to the media triage list will be needed as the crisis develops requiring you to reach more stakeholders.
Information about media monitoring can be found in the Media Monitoring: A Look Outside Your Organization article on this website.
Communications counseling management
One of the team leader’s most important responsibilities is counseling management about the communication aspects of the crisis. During the initial response phase that will primarily focus on preparing, receiving management’s approval and issuing the initial statement within one hour of learning about the situation.
The team leader also suggests spokespeople – who have attended media training – and their locations. If some member of the management team will make a statement or appear at a news conference the team leader arranges for a quick media training review and rehearsal if required.
As the crisis develops the team leader should provide management with data obtained through monitoring and other sources regarding the scope and tone of media coverage, message effectiveness, emerging issues, centers of gravity, new or modified messages, and broadening audiences and the best way to reach them.
Be a crisis communications leader
Your crisis communications team members are working under tremendous pressure to deliver maximum information with minimum delay to connect with the organization’s stakeholders. In such an environment, a few words of encouragement and a “thank you” from you, their boss, goes a long way to acknowledge and encourage their efforts.
Remember, especially in the early moments of any crisis, it’s not so much the initial event as it is the organization’s defensive behavior and slow or nonexistent response that causes the most damage to its reputation. In other words, do you want your stakeholders to view your organization and management as caring and competent or callous and incompetent?
Timely and accurate communication can influence their judgment.
If you have a comment or question about this article or crisis management in general, please contact me.