Imagine: You lead PR for an automaker that has a vehicle at a car show offering free electric vehicle (EV) test drives. Media traverse the venue, interviewing smiling families about their experience. For an unidentified reason, an EV catches fire, trapping and severely injuring two passengers.
Reporters and bystanders run to capture live footage as the disaster unfolds and emergency personnel arrive. The scene quickly shifts from a family-friendly afternoon to a chaotic media crisis. Before long, viral news stories claiming EVs are dangerous appear across national media outlets, and #BanEVs is trending on social media.
It’s a hypothetical scenario, but you never know when disaster may erupt, and you need to switch into emergency gear. That’s where Taft’s purpose-driven approach to communications comes in.
Click to tweet: Developing an issues management or #crisiscommunications strategy before chaos ensues helps leaders establish response protocols so communication can flow as rapidly as possible. Learn more from @taftcomms. http://taftcomms.com/fOaA50Q2LT5
Prepare, Not Panic
Health, business, finance, education, technology — “emergencies” mean different things to different industries but have something in common: the need for a coordinated, strategic communications plan that anticipates worst case scenarios and people responsible for crisis management. In PwC’s 2023 Global Crisis and Resilience Survey, 96% of organizations said they experienced a disruption in the past two years, with 91% reporting at least one other than the pandemic.
Emergencies have the power to harm organizational integrity and reputation, particularly if they provoke rather than allay fear among audiences that may already be skeptical of your agenda and mission. Shaping and shifting public narratives and perception is key to building and retaining trust and credibility.
Organizations today face serious challenges and uncertainties worldwide. Some are prepared to respond in the moment, but many don’t know where to begin. The ability to navigate and emerge stronger from an emergency is largely dependent on the quality of an organization’s crisis plan and discipline in following it.
Developing an issues management or crisis communications strategy before chaos ensues helps leaders establish response protocols so communication can flow as rapidly as possible. Pre-approved messages that can be quickly customized help organizations prepare and practice what to say, when to say it, and how to say it.
Taft recently collaborated with a client to develop a rapid response plan and host a workshop to enhance and streamline coordination across a diverse coalition of partner organizations. The plan was activated for the first time based on real world events this summer, resulting in national media pickup reflecting our client’s desired messaging. That’s because we partnered with our client months before to develop a well-thought-out plan that enabled the response to efficiently flow as adrenaline and emotions ran high.
Stay Ready for Anything
Once a plan is in place, it is critically important to train key staff stakeholders how to use it. Taft supports an array of clients through coaching, exercises, and courses that pressure test organizations’ emergency response and crisis management capabilities. Simulations and scenario planning are some of the best strategies to identify potential threats impacting an industry and practice how to put response plans into action.
Preparing spokespeople to anticipate reporters’ hardest-hitting questions allows them to develop and practice pivot techniques to get back on message and identify critical audiences to reach and how — be it social media, print news, broadcast, or elsewhere.
Lessons learned from the client workshop mentioned above were unanimous: A lack of clear leadership and internal protocols fuel dysfunction, increasing stress and pressure in the heat of an emergency. Opportunities to sway public opinion or influence key audiences are lost when organizations adopt a “wait and see” mentality, failing to respond with urgency. Leaders who impulsively and individually respond also diminish organizational cohesion.
Let’s say we were helping a client handle the hypothetical flaming EV incident. With headlines questioning EV safety and the future of clean energy, it’s time to activate the rapid response playbook.
There are many factors to consider: Are procedures and protocols established to rapidly respond to evolving situations? If so, is everyone responsible for leading response activities aware and ready to coordinate? Who are media spokespeople, and are they ready to deliver the organization’s core messages? Are approved statements ready to deploy? Who is monitoring the news and social media to determine if messaging is being picked up or if the situation changes? Who determines when the crisis is deemed “over?”
Build Resiliency for the Future
It can take days, weeks, months, or sometimes even years to recover from a crisis. Taft helps clients test plans in low-stakes, low-pressure environments through role-playing and simulations to evaluate communication gaps, determine areas of improvement, and identify best practices to inform adjustments.
After a plan is put into action, deescalating to business as usual should include reflection time to assess lessons learned and determine if communication strategies should evolve to improve future responses. Plan evaluation is also valuable to help organizations determine whether additional communications resources should be added to the toolbox to improve responsiveness and strengthen resilience.
Taft’s team of professionals with experience managing a multitude of crises for companies, nonprofit organizations, and governments (up to and including the governor) is here to help.