Crisis Management and “The Boss”

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Crisis Management & The Boss

By Rodger Roeser, President, The Eisen Agency & National Chairman, Public Relations Agency Owners Association

 

A simple online search of crisis management seems to yield virtually everything conceivable about the subject, from pundits and experts to this very book you’re reviewing. It’s something you hope to never be confronted with as a professional, yet you intuitively know and understand it’s something with which you must be prepared. There are many ways to handle and manage a crisis but it always begins and ends with a plan. But, in my career and my experience, I find that less than 10 percent of organizations actually have a crisis management protocol or plan – and even fewer actually practice response on a regular basis. Why?

The boss.

Smart bosses understand the importance of being prepared – the critical nature of practice, rehearsal and messaging. So, for all of you without a crisis communications plan or protocol, walk into the bosses office today and say, “I’m going to get started on our crisis communications planning.” I will bet you a donut you’ll get one of the following two responses:

1). Why? What’s that for? Or 2), We don’t need that and that’s not what we’re focused on right now.

Smart bosses already have a crisis plan in place, and review it every 6 months like clockwork, and practice regularly. Other smart bosses that don’t have this in place are looking to their communications team to proactively suggest and develop a crisis plan in the absence of one, or in the event it’s out of date (more than 12 months old). But, as we all know, most bosses just aren’t that smart. Right?

Certainly, they’ve done something right or they wouldn’t be where they are now. So, what the boss is really saying is, “You haven’t communicated to me the importance of doing that.”

Funny thing is, in the event of an emergency or crisis, they’ll be contacting you and say “I need you to spin this.” Or, “you’re the PR guy, I pay you for this, go fix it.” So, resign yourself to the fact that with or without a plan or a protocol, in the event of a crisis, you’re going to be involved – so best to be prepared.  It may take a bit of convincing and cajoling to the top brass (and trust me, those that need it the most are the most reluctant), but share how important being prepared is, that development of a program is not that difficult or time consuming, and that having a plan will avert an infinite number of costly mistakes – mistakes that could, and most likely will (BP) cost that very boss her job. It most certainly will cost you yours.

Remember, most bosses don’t think in terms of today, they think in terms of tomorrow and how what is happening today will impact and affect the future – be it value of the company, consumer confidence and so forth. So, it’s critical to impress upon them that the very nature of crisis management is designed not to make a crisis go away, but to respond professionally in a manner that makes the organization and its leadership appear to be in control and mitigate long term negativity.

If confronted with “we can’t focus on that today, we have x next week,” remember, those types of excuses will always come up. Ask for a good time, and that this must be a communications and leadership priority, then work to set and get on a schedule. I encourage the use of a Gantt Chart that details involvement, timelines and anticipated delivery dates and milestones. But remember, crises don’t schedule themselves when it’s convenient. Time has to be invested, and better to do it today than to wait and hope nothing happens. Hope is a very expensive commodity in crisis communication.

Now that you’ve spoken in terms the boss will understand (loss of job, loss of shareholder value, loss of board confidence, the appearance of a lack of strong leadership and vision), there are a few simple steps to communicating this internally and ultimately getting to the plan. One critical point, if you’ve never done crisis management planning – now is not the time to learn. For goodness sakes, call in a professional firm (any writer of any article in this book would likely suffice) as they are versed and have created likely dozens, if not more, crisis plans in their career, have the knowledge and expertise, and perhaps most importantly are able to navigate objectively through internal “politics.”

The first step in creating this program is to get the necessary parties involved and sitting at the same table — most likely the top officer, HR, legal and perhaps the top person in outside/inside sales and/or customer service – and of course, you and your PR agency senior counsel. An email with a request is probably not going to suffice. Sit down and talk with each stakeholder in this equation, and relate to that specific public on the benefits of this program and why they are an important piece.

Sidebar: Now, if you are NOT the top marketing officer, you need to start with them and get this meeting going. If he or she is not receptive to creating a crisis management plan and protocol, I encourage getting your resume polished up – because that person, particularly in that position, officially qualifies as a bad boss and is likely to quickly throw you under the bus in the event of an issue for not being prepared and is the type to pass blame. If you have a situation where you are turned down for this type of project, I would suggest you be certain to document that and be certain it’s in your employment files that you requested and suggested such a meeting and a plan.

It would be odd that a junior level professional request such a meeting. So, assuming you’re the senior level leader in the marketing and communications department and you don’t have such a plan…

…start today. You are putting your job and your company at risk.

Assemble the team. Anyone that could or would have a direct response with some type of challenge that may come up and affect your external publics is at the table. Then, you simply begin by establishing a set of protocols and criteria for exactly how you would respond in the event of a crisis. Again, this is simply a protocol document. Who is authorized to speak to the media, how do the communications channels work, do we have a “dark site” set up (Oh, you don’t know that is? Call in professional), and what are we trying to accomplish. All of this is agreed to beforehand by leadership, protocols established company wide, and would be part of your master document.

Clearly, these policies and protocols should be shared with all employees.

And, this should be practiced, at least every six months with mock drills. I also like to suggest doing “secret shopper” type of work where “a member of the media” calls someone at work and tries to bait them into a quote or some type of comment. After you implement this, try it – bet you another donut at least 50 percent of employees fail. If that is the case, you need to be certain this was communicated and clearly shared internally by all means possible, and its importance reinforced, practiced and shared.

And remember, this is only step one. But how you communicate to the internal publics both in setting up and creating the plan, then reinforcing the protocols is critical to the success.

If there is no policy or protocol, don’t be angry when a low level employee goes spouting off to the news media or offering up quotes and responses. Who does that hurt? You – again, it may cost you your job and certainly hurts the reputation of the business. Oh, that’s right, you’re too busy today and the boss doesn’t want to focus on that right now.

About the Author

Rodger Roeser is the owner and president of Greater Cincinnati’s premier investor and public relations firm, The Eisen Agency. A 2011 Smart Business Pillar Award winner, twice named a Business Courier Fast55 and NKY Chamber Emerging 30 Business as one of the fastest growing businesses of any kind in the region, and honored with numerous industry awards, The Eisen Agency is the most award winning public relations firm in Greater Cincinnati. Roeser is the current Cincinnati PRSA PR Professional of the Year, and served as Cincinnati Chapter president in 2005 and is the founder of the chapter’s Blacksmith Awards. He is the national chairman of the Public Relations Agency Owners Association, and the host of national online radio show “That Marketing Show.”

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