Don’t Stop Preparin’ – Why Just Having a Crisis Plan Isn’t Enough

May 31, 2018

Credit: WiffleGif

In the age of nearly constant public relations nightmares (we’re looking at you, Facebook), any PR person worth their salt knows the value of a good crisis communications plan. We know it should be thoughtful and thorough enough to include all of the major elements – phone lists, sample holding statements and written procedures – that our panicked brains will forget the moment the client tells us “there’s a situation on our hands.” If you’ve managed to create one of these plans for each of your clients, congrats! You’re officially half way to being prepared for a potential fire drill. The next, and perhaps most important, step in crisis planning is to put your well-laid plans to the test.

So, how does one practice for the unexpected? Put on your acting hats! One of our Barokas Communications teams recently led our client through a real-time crisis drill. On a scheduled day, we had one of our employees pose as a reporter for the Seattle Times who was about to break a huge story on executive misconduct – and of course, our client was front and center in the drama. For the entire day, we traded emails and phone calls to formulate our response, eventually providing the “reporter” with the info she needed for her story.

To be clear, the client knew all along that this was an exercise – otherwise, we would have had some explaining to do. But by getting everyone’s buy-in and acting as if the situation was real, we were able to uncover our collective strengths and weaknesses and figure out how we could be better prepared for the real deal. Want to try it out? Here are some tips.

Choose your situation carefully

Depending on your client, there are plenty of potential crisis situations you could choose to practice. Start by practicing the most relevant ones, whether that be a product recall, major data breach or something more socially relevant like a #MeToo accusation. It might be uncomfortable, but everything is fair game if you want to be truly prepared.

Don’t go easy

It might be tempting to schedule your drill for a slow day at the office, but the reality is that crisis doesn’t care if you’re in the middle of a board meeting. Make sure your drill is happening on a normal weekday, then throw your client some curveballs. A ticking story deadline, leaked employee comment or social media backlash are very real situations that add pressure to your response.

Remember your role

You might be the one drilling, and ultimately, teaching your client, but you still have an important job to do. Make sure you’re drafting statements and answering the phone in a timely manner, and think through how you would position each communication if you were truly under fire.

Don’t forget to debrief

The whole point of this exercise is to learn, so make a point to sit down with your team (in person, if possible) to talk through the drill when it’s all said and done. Let the client lead by telling you their thoughts on the experience, then offer advice from your PR perspective. Make sure to ask for feedback on your role – what else could they use from you in order to feel successful?

Rinse and repeat

Debriefing on the drill will inevitably expose some bottlenecks in communication and processes that maybe sounded good in your crisis plan but didn’t really pan out in real life. That’s why it’s important to practice these drills again to make sure the improvements you identified are actually reasonable and helpful when put to the test.

Building a robust crisis program and running through regular practice drills ensures you’re ready when, not if, crisis strikes. Practicing your plan builds trust with your client and helps you work out the kinks so you’re ready to handle the next tricky situation like a pro. And hey, who says you can’t hit happy hour afterward to celebrate being ahead of the eight ball?

Happy practicing!

-Erin

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