Few organizational crises are unexpected. More than likely, advance warning signs existed, were acknowledged somewhere along the chain of command, but were ignored or not reported to leadership.
Take for example the recent shooting at Ft. Hood, where an Army psychiatrist opened fire on the Texas base. As the story unfolded, the media uncovered a speech warning of “adverse events” given by the accused a year and a half earlier.
“There continues to be a consistent pattern,” says Larry L. Smith, president of Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, Ky. “Only about one-third of all business crises are the sudden type, such as fires, explosions and natural disasters. Two-thirds of all crises are what we call smoldering crises.”
Depending on the source, roughly half of organizations are somewhat prepared for a crisis. Even fewer rehearse and revise crisis plans. And even fewer actively seek out the smoldering crises to prevent catastrophe.
Planning for an adverse event is where crisis management occurs. Though often overlooked, it allows organizations to anticipate, address and influence the opinions and behaviors of key audiences once a crisis erupts.
As trusted advisors to clients, attorneys possess the built-in credibility and opportunity to help them craft, rehearse and revise crisis plans to navigate perils presented along the crisis continuum.
Smith recommends that clients’ crisis plans focus on operations, communications and business recovery. A rough crisis preparation outline might include contingency planning for likely scenarios, identification and coaching of spokespersons, message development for crucial audiences, and the establishment of communications channels for the quick dissemination of information and monitoring of opinions.
Most of your clients, however, probably contact you once the train has left the station. Depending on whether it is a criminal or civil matter, there are different approaches.
“In a civil matter, you are looking at your client’s reputation and trying to control any fallout from bad press that could impact your client’s business,” says Howard T. Healy, partner at DiRenzo and Bomier in Neenah, Wis. “In a criminal situation, you worry about a potential jury.”
Healy cites the recent carnival surrounding former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, where the U.S. attorney aired the case in public before charges were filed. The jury pool (a.k.a. the public) had already made up their minds about Blagojevich.
“If it is a complex media circus, like Blagojevich or Bernie Madoff, then I think you need a skilled PR professional to work in conjunction with the attorney,” Healy says. “The parties should work together to make sure the right, and appropriate, information is getting out to the public.”
George Mason University’s Melinda Villagran, Ph.D., a frequent consultant on strategic communications for the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Defense, concurs with Healy. But she says the key to influencing the 24-hour news cycle is being the first to tell the story.
“Maximum disclosure, minimum delay is still the gold standard by which the best crisis responses are crafted,” says Villagran.
She recommends creating a “dark Web site” for potential crises. Once a crisis occurs, the Web site can be tweaked to fit the specifics and go live in a matter of minutes.
Dark Web sites at a minimum will allow an organization to quickly disseminate information. This allows the organization and its leadership to appear prepared and actively participate in shaping the story in the hearts and minds of key audiences. And it establishes a streamlined channel of information.
Of course, you shouldn’t overlook the power and re-Tweetable (translation: pass-along) power of social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and others in influencing the outcome of a crisis. Dow Jones Newswire’s Kristina Peterson writes that major companies are increasingly turning to blogs to fulfill functions traditionally performed by spokespersons.
Blogs can help businesses field questions on sensitive issues, writes Peterson, without directly refusing comment.
“It doesn’t do much good to win in the court room three years after the crisis,” ICM’s Smith notes, “only to discover that customers have switched to another company, employees have been leaving because they don’t know if they’ll have a job after the trial, and it’s next to impossible to hire new employees for the same reason.”
Karl Robe, APR, counsels attorneys and executives on communications strategies that support achievement of growth objectives and overcome business challenges. Contact him at Karl James & Company LLC by emailing email@example.com.