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The New Era of Crisis Communications:  ICOR President Inteviews Suzanne Bernier, Author of Disaster Heroes

October 24, 2017

Author: Suzanne Bernier
President at SB Crisis Consulting

This former journalist, now a multi-certified, award-winning and internationally-recognized crisis management consultant, speaker and author, has helped governments, communities and companies plan for and respond to disasters for over twenty years. She was named 2016’s ‘Continuity & Resilience Consultant of the Year – North America’ by the Business Continuity Institute (BCI), and had the honor of being a guest speaker at The White House during FEMA’s 2016 Individual & Community Preparedness Awards.

Recent events like hurricanes, hacking, active shooter and terror incidents, remind us of the need to have solid crisis management and associated crisis communications plans in place in advance of a crisis.

Suzanne, you have a great deal of experience with managing the communications for different types if incidents.  Share with us your observations with the recent Las Vegas tragedy.

Most of us do not want to even consider something like this tragedy happening to us or to someone we know or love.  But it is important to consider scenarios such as this one and then draft plans on how to respond.

How would you choose (or not) to communicate to your employees, customers, and constituents if you were:

  • An employer to one of the victims;
  • Mandalay Bay leadership;
  • The store who sold the shooter his weapons;  or
  • The City of Las Vegas?

If your organization is in the middle of a crisis, and if there have been victims, injured and/or survivors involved, you must acknowledge the crisis and show compassion as quickly as possible afterwards. You want to work WITH the media to get your key messages out, not against them.

Consider each crisis an opportunity to demonstrate your organization’s values and commitment to its employees, customers, and community following a crisis or disaster.

When something bad happens, you have three choices. You can:

  1. Let it define you.
  2. Let it destroy you.
  3. Let it strengthen you.

How can we take advantage of a crisis and make it an opportunity?

How and when we choose to communicate are critical to ensuring successful communications throughout a crisis, and the best way to do this is by having a tried and tested Crisis Communications Plan and social media strategy in place.

If you have a crisis communications plan, review it to see if it would help strengthen your organization during a crisis. If it doesn’t, you may want to make some changes/enhancements to your current plans.

Crisis communications lessons learned from disasters:

  • Deal with human suffering first
  • Remember that every decision has consequences
  • Align your actions and your words
  • Assume you won’t be able to communicate
  • Maintain offsite facilities
  • Nothing says concern and control like placing a leader at the scene
  • Be the first to report your bad news
  • Monitor traditional and social media

Consider the crisis as an opportunity to reinforce your brand and company values. How do you want your company/organization to be seen during and after the crisis? After the crisis is over, what will people think about your response?

Talk more about the "new era" of crisis management and communcations.

In this new era of crisis management and crisis communications, our top risks and threats today didn’t exist twenty years ago. Cybersecurity, terrorism, active intruder attacks, social media, protests and civil unrest are all fairly recent threats. Do your current crisis management and crisis communications plans reflect the new reality we live in?

At the very least, your crisis communications plan should include a social media component within. The section should identify who your social media team would be during a crisis, their roles and responsibilities, when and why your organization would choose to communicate through social media during an emergency, monitoring vs communicating, sample tweets, Facebook postings, etc.

Since we’re on the topic of social media, I think it’s important that we remind ourselves, and our employees, how easy it is for people to secretly record, take pictures and/or videos & then share through social media. Would you have plans in place to deal with an embarrassing viral video of your CEO being circulated through social media? Would you know how to respond, or would you decide not to respond at all? Who would make those decisions for your organization, and how quickly?

Another tip or ‘lesson learned’ from recent hacking events like the Sony hack reminds us not to put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on CNN or your mother to hear. In this new era of cybercrime, you never know if or when one of your ‘private’ emails may be revealed online for all to see.

An old Japanese Proverb says: “The reputation of a thousand years may be deterred by the conduct of one hour.” I would say that now, with the advent of social media, the words ‘one hour’ should be replaced with ‘one minute’.

What other advice do you have?

Be first, be right, be credible during a crisis. Accuracy of information and speed of release will increase your credibility, while showing empathy and openness will establish trust – the two together, credibility and trust, result in successful communication.

Five steps to success:

  1. Execute a solid communications plan.
  2. Be the first source for information.
  3. Show competence and expertise.
  4. Remain honest, open and truthful.
  5. Express empathy early.

While we can’t prevent every crisis from occurring, we CAN ensure we have the proper plans, people and procedures in place to help us respond and recover as quickly possible following any emergency situation. By reviewing the steps, tips and principles listed in this article, you can better ensure your organization is prepared to communicate effectively after a crisis.

In closing, here are 10 steps to successful crisis communications:

  1. Anticipate crises. Anticipate both inside and outside your organization.
  2. Have a trained crisis communications team.
  3. Have a crisis communications plan. Decide on your overarching objectives, identify your target audiences, choose your key messages, select the appropriate methods of communication.
  4. Identify and train spokespersons.
  5. Establish notification systems.
  6. Monitor traditional and social media.
  7. Identify and know your stakeholders.
  8. Develop holding statements.
  9. Finalize and adapt key messages.
  10. Perform a post-crisis analysis/After Action Report/Hotwash/Debrief