A six-step reputation crisis planning process

No organisation wants to believe it’s going to have a crisis. But most do, and preparation is the difference between catastrophic reputational loss – which will sink an organisation, and managed damage – which is recoverable.

A good risk register should flag up anything that is ‘high risk’ and be subject to a crisis plan. Having a plan gives the senior team confidence in the comms department and manages expectations about the risk and its impact. Many crises come from left field. They can be anything: a piece of market sensitive IP falling into the public domain; a senior sexual indiscretion; a fraud; a product is released with a life-threatening fault. So preparation is everything. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of a good crisis plan in action.

First, you need the right people operating. A clearly acknowledged crisis lead will: interrogate the issue and call out whether it as a full-scale crisis operation or minor handling issue; they will get the right people in the room; they will direct the process; they will chair the crisis committee meetings.

The crisis lead is unlikely to be the CEO or the chair (who may need to be spokespeople and could be implicated). The crisis lead might be a director of communications, COO, general counsel or finance director.

There should also be a select crisis committee. This might include the CEO, director of HR, comms director, finance director and an area specialist. Keeping it tight reduces the risk of an internal leak.

Then the crisis lead needs to follow a six-stage process:

Stage 1
The crisis lead might want to use a ‘credible threat checklist’. The list will look at sources, how soon it could reach the public domain, impact and opportunities to mitigate.

Stage 2
If the threat is credible, the crisis lead will move to stage two and assemble the crisis committee.

Stage 3
In stage three they will land the process by allocating a code name, starting a list of people who’ve been briefed and outlining the process they’re going to follow.

Stage 4
In stage four they will ‘hold and prepare’. Holding actions are taken such as the suspension of systems or operations, informing the board/police or suspending an individual or team. Then the key facts boilerplate is established. It will include key messages and a question and answer document. This will be wrapped into a handling plan together with a list of stakeholders and the best channels to reach them.

The crisis lead should lead a discussion about ‘best case/worst case’ scenarios of how the news will react. It’s better for an organisation to get ‘hard hats’ on and to be prepared for the worst as the news unfolds. This then gives the bones for an escalation plan if the news lands badly.

Stage 5
This is when we move out. Experience suggests that the more you can do in a personal capacity the better. Messages should be rehearsed so that the script sounds natural and not contrived, but equally there should be a Q&A which tells the communicator what NOT to say.

Stage 6
The crisis lead along with the crisis committee should then review the activities and agree further actions against the escalation plan.

A sure-footed comms professional will ensure that expectations are managed internally and that everyone knows how bad things could get. From there, as the old song goes: ‘The only way is up!’.

Written by Dirk Paterson, director at agency The Corporate Comms Shop

PRmoment Awards 2020