Communication - Are you ready should disaster strike?

Organisations that can respond well to crises are more likely to succeed, says Ben Hurley.

While it is good to have a rose-tinted view of the world, it also pays to be prepared for the worst.

Better to listen to a team assertively asking difficult questions during the planning stages than hearing "I told you so" when the unlikely happens.

Every company or organisation, big or small, can list the array of disasters and mishaps that, despite their best efforts, could have an impact on them and work out a plan of how they would deal with it. This plan covers how and what you decide, do and say.

Gloomy lists of possible events and impacts, known as "risk registers", are becoming more common in organisations as tools to prevent bad things happening. They sit in a drawer until the next managerial awayday or are used by a single department. They rarely include communications or a plan of what to do when a risk becomes real.

Prevention may well be the best medicine, but shit happens and you need to know how to react when the fan has been hit. "Incident management" plans are a framework for dealing with unexpected events, which are never predictable in every detail, whether it is flooding or IT failure.

Former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfield categorised these as the "known unknowns we know we don't know about and unknown unknowns that we don't know we don't know about". Fittingly, I am going to cover some of the communications elements of an incident management plan that can help turn a mountain into a molehill.

Lead not follow

Incident management plans often include draft written reactions to media or other stakeholders that can be adapted according to the particular event. Responses can be built around your organisation's aims and core messages so that you are not simply reacting to events - such as: "Health and safety is our number-one priority. The quality of our product is paramount."

While it is important not to be ham-fisted, you can continue to reinforce your principles throughout an unfortunate event.

Prepare your network

Agree who in the organisation will be alerted when something looks like it may go wrong or has gone wrong. It is crucial that there is a clear route to get information and updates to the person who will make the decisions on response and communication.

It is then a question of deciding who else needs to know or should know and how they can be reached. This can be as sophisticated as text or automated voicemail software or as simple as up-to-date and accessible contacts for staff, clients and main stakeholders so that one person can ring round with information.

Pick the A Team

Decide who is in your incident management A Team or the roles that need to be filled - Hannibal, Face, BA and Murdoch - with available people when you are managing an incident.

The gold (strategy), silver (tactics) and bronze (doing) divisions work well for big organisations and could be a useful way for smaller companies to make sure the team knows the roles in the event of an incident. Tasks can be distributed and nothing gets left out. The bronze doer is just as crucial as the gold thinker for an A Team response to come together.

Equip the team

Do your team members have the tools they need and know how to use them? Can they issue a press statement from home or update the Facebook page at the weekend, even if the person that usually does this is on holiday? Can you agree communications for 24 hours without access to the office - after a power cut, for example?

Get the facts straight

The golden rule of crisis communications is to get the correct facts out as quickly as possible and on your own terms. This provides clear and accurate information and shows that you are being open and honest.

It always helps to learn from others. Transport for London recently announced that a control room at Victoria Underground station had flooded and caused major transport delays. When builders posted pictures on social media of the control room they had inadvertently "flooded" with concrete, commuters were angry that they had not been given the full facts.

Think of others

Have a checklist of things to be considered when deciding how to respond to an incident and include the impact outside the company. It is all to easy to get wrapped up in the impact on the company operation and fail to think about those outside who have been affected or fail to talk to them and keep them up to date.

Say sorry

If you are sorry for what has happened then say so in as direct a way as possible, privately and publicly. Do not dance around it or take too lawyerly an approach.

Look ahead

It is useful to give people a sense of what will happen next after an incident, but do not dig yourself into a hole. Avoid making commitments that you cannot keep, such as "an investigation", and stick to those that you do make, following up with the audiences with whom you have communicated.

If you are fortunate enough not to have to deal with any unforeseen incidents, review your incident management plan annually and test it by having your A Team walk through role-play scenarios. Just don't forget the emergency biscuits.

Ben Hurley is a freelance campaigns and communications professional.

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