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Crisis Communications: Knowing when to Rip Off the Band-Aid

Band-Aids on a teal background.

Planning can provide playbook for successful issues management

When a crisis arises, it is tempting to try to stonewall, responding only to what reporters and the public already know, hoping to limit the damage by keeping all the details out of view.

But as Kate Middleton and the British Royal Family painfully learned, this strategy can feed the negative story, making it grow bigger and keeping it alive longer. The Princess of Wales tried to quash the story about her health scare and then released a Mother’s Day photo that she had electronically altered. Media went wild speculating about a royal cover up, and the story only grew more sensational. It raged until Princess Kate acknowledged that her recent abdominal surgery had revealed cancer. The sobering news finally calmed the media—but illustrated the danger of trying to withhold information to avoid a crisis.

The Reis Group works frequently with organizations to create crisis plans and, at times, to put them into action. Our experience with crisis management and scenario planning enables us to help clients anticipate all sorts of communications emergencies so that we have clear steps in place and agreement on strategies to smoothly manage and mitigate threats.

Knowing When Not to Hold Tight

For example, I once worked with an organization that had a major data leak that could have impacted hundreds of hospitals, thousands of patients, and its reputation. A contractor had mishandled a database, and the organization was obligated to notify the affected health systems, even though there was no indication personal data had gotten into the wrong hands.

With the first reporter inquiry, one attorney at the organization wanted to keep tight control and withhold as much as possible about the potential extent of the breech. But we convinced the leadership that a complete accounting of the situation was best. The result was a thorough explanation from the start and a one-day story in a handful of trade publications. The worst-case scenario would have been a vague and incomplete response that fueled reporters’ interest to drag the story out for multiple news cycles. More outlets would compete to break new developments, and the organization ultimately would look like it was hiding bad behavior.

It is crucial to know when to rip off the band-aid instead of tugging at it one painful bit at a time. Investing in a full issues-management plan can help guide decisions and steps in the heat of moments like these.

Too Many Potential Scenarios to Prepare

A barrier to creating a crisis management plan is the feeling that you can never plan for every possible scenario. That is absolutely true, but you should not let it stop you from creating an issues management strategy in advance, which someday will serve you well as an invaluable guide when that crisis actually occurs.

The brainstorming process sometimes shows us that organizations can be reluctant to address some of their most likely crises. That’s why it’s crucial to have an experienced outside communications team to help brainstorm potential scenarios and bucket them into categories to make the process manageable, and then work with you to get ready, including steps like spokesperson message training, stakeholder activation, coalition building, and other activities for reputation management.

The final result of the issues management planning process is a playbook to guide the organization through every step when the unthinkable occurs. A solid playbook turns a potentially frenzied panic, where it’s easy to make mistakes, into a calm and clear-eyed process with a step-by-step guide.

From Plan to Action

A client came to us recently to announce the pending departure of their CEO, who was well-loved and trusted among the company’s stakeholders. Leaders were worried about the impact on employees and other stakeholders. We reminded them that we already had a playbook, so we pulled out our plan and started walking through the steps in close coordination with the client.

We had a sample holding statement that needed updates for the current situation. We had a list of key people who needed to be informed, with the timing and order of outreach already planned to avoid any premature leak. These, and other crucial steps, were easily carried out as we plugged in dates and details and assigned tasks to turn our well-designed crisis plan into action.

A crisis communications plan is like insurance. If you postpone it until the crisis has arrived, it’s too late. With the right support, crisis planning can be a manageable job that will prepare you for both the likely and the completely unexpected scenarios that your organization could face.

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