Chances are, if you are like many organizations, there’s not a crisis communications plan sitting in your top drawer, one that’s been updated and rehearsed and that lets you sleep soundly at night should some emergency befall you. Undertaking the painstaking process of developing a crisis plan seems to be that task that never quite gets off the back burner, kind of like cleaning out the gutters – there’s always something more pressing or more interesting to do. But then, inevitably, it rains and, well, you know what could happen.
As important as a crisis communications plan is, this is not a commentary to guilt you into creating one, even though, for the record, I’d say it was a prudent idea. Instead, this is an entreaty to at least lay an internal foundation so that you don’t make a crisis worse once it begins to consume you. So, for the majority of you who don’t have a crisis plan in place, here is a straightforward list of must-haves until you do.
Establish a media contact.
This is simple enough. Appoint someone as the person that fields all media calls. In a smaller organization, that will likely be the president/CEO, but for those who are media shy, find another senior person who is comfortable speaking with reporters.
Communicate your media policy to ALL employees.
Once you’ve established whom your point of contact is, it’s critical that all employees – particularly those on the front lines – know who it is, and just as importantly, understand unambiguously that only that person is authorized to speak to the media. That means no small talk, no personal perspectives on what they’ve heard in the halls, no opinions about the state of things. All employees, even those in the know about the matter at hand, must refer media inquiries to the designated spokesperson. And it’s a good idea never to utter those defensive-sounding words, “no comment.” Something along the lines of “You’ll want to talk to Mr. Johnson, and I’ll give him the message that you called” should suffice.
Train first-line employees on the questions to ask.
When reporters call, makes sure your administrative staff gets the right information from them. It’s a good idea to arm your folks with a checklist or form that they can refer to in the event of a media contact (during a crisis or not). Make sure they get the reporter’s name and contact information (email and phone) as well as his or her outlet. And be sure to find out the reporter’s deadline so that someone can respond to the inquiry in time.
Respond to the inquiry.
I’m not a big believer in not responding to media inquiries, even when you know the questions are ones you don’t want to or can’t answer. Be courteous and responsive, including the times when you aren’t able to provide the information they are looking for. Not responding will only raise suspicions that something is awry.
None of the above is designed to address the core issue that you may be dealing with, issues that could involve legal matters, people’s safety, your organization’s reputation and much more. But having the four baseline elements above in place will go a long way toward not making matters worse.