Crisis Communications – a Toolkit

3rd February, 2021

This article is paired with – Crisis Communications for Social Media.

By failing to prepare, you prepare to fail.

Introduction

When we think of crisis, it’s often as something that appears out of nowhere, rocking long-standing assumptions and threatening the very existence of an organisation. These don’t just happen to big institutions on a national stage – a crisis can also play out in a small charity or local community, with results no less severe.

Either way, crises can often be anticipated and prepared for. The process of preparation breaks down into logical steps that can be applied to organisations of all sizes. A little preparation can allow you to react with confidence and recover more swiftly.

Although this material is based on a talk given at the height of the second Covid-19 lockdown in 2021, this is by no means the only form of crisis affecting heritage organisations in the early 2020’s. Shifting social attitudes and related issues have prompted fierce standoffs where remaining neutral has not been an option.

It has never been easier for discontent, whether internal or external, to reach a wider audience – whether through the press or social media. Here the right response can be the difference between a prompt solution and widespread negative publicity.

The advice that follows offers a highly structured framework that will help you keep calm and take appropriate action, whatever the nature of your crisis.

About this article

This material is based on a talk by two representatives of Weber Shandwick: Patrick Harrison Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Peter Rogers, Associate Director, Crisis Communications. It was arranged by Media Trust for the Rebuilding Heritage programme. You can watch the whole webinar here – or nine minutes on the major points here.

Is Your Problem a Crisis or an Issue?

First, define terms. A crisis is something that might potentially stop your business, or in its tracks, or at least create a major hiatus. Everything else is an issue. Both can be short or long-term and can be disruptive for as long as they last – this might involve long litigation, a disaffected staff member, volunteer, visitor or third party.

Covid-19 May Be Your Most Recent Crisis…

“We are not always in charge of our own destiny – other forces are dictating how we live our lives in a way that is unprecedented in our lifetimes.”

Covid 19 has been cyclical, with many organisations revolving from fully open, to completely closed, to offering a reduced service; having furloughed staff, redundancies, new staff or volunteer recruitment and donor outreach. This ‘unvirtuous circle’ is frequently outside of our control. The looming possibilities of severe illness, financial calamity or permanent closure have had a profound impact on the personal lives of those connected to heritage organisations. Government regulations, fluctuating local conditions, the additional challenges involved in caring for often antiquated buildings and objects, and the hugely varied societal and cultural responses to the pandemic, have all exerted their own pressures.

With so much to deal with, Covid-19 has therefore been both an issue and a crisis, and getting communications right has been vitally important in addressing this.

…But a Range of Other Crises Have Affected Heritage Organisations in the Last Few Years

If you need to advocate for crisis preparedness work in your organisation, then it is worth considering the sheer range of events that have severely affected heritage organisations over the last few years. This is by no means a comprehensive list – many crises will be very specific to a single organisation:

Outbreaks of fire such as those at Glasgow School of Art or The Cuming Museum, or major flooding, which closed the Jorvik Viking Centre for a year.

Contentious public discussions over slavery, empire and colonialism and how we should tell the stories of historical figures associated with these narratives.

Job losses and financial issues, which have affected hundreds of organisations in the museum and heritage sector since 2020.

Integrating innovation in an appropriate way – for example, disputes about Pokemon Go near war memorials or at sites commemorating genocide.

Foot and Mouth had a profound effect on site visits and tourism in the UK in 2001; the response strategies to that event had some parallels with Covid 19 two decades later.

Practical Action

“‘Let’s hope nothing bad happens’ is not a plan.”

Preparation comes with five elements: Audit, Create, Activate, Rehearse, Update & Repeat. These should be applied cyclically for as long as the crisis lasts. When preparing in advance, remember that plans left to gather dust will be less important than something live and evolving.

1. Audit

This is your information gathering and discovery phase. The sorts of information you might collect include:

Stakeholder mapping – who needs to be kept in the loop in the event of a problem? This might include visitors, donors, your own staff or others.

Team/role identification – who really needs to be in the room when dealing with a crisis? This might vary depending on the nature of the problem. If you are a very small organisation, think about allies or volunteers whom you might draw into your plan. For larger organisations, the core group is likely to include your CEO, Chair of trustees, communications experts, or possibly facilities or estate manager for a problem on the ground.

Existing materials review – what crisis planning documents do you already have? What needs to be added?

Processes and protocols – Which eventualities have you already anticipated? This includes both preventative measures, and ‘in case of emergency’ procedures. Are there possible situations for which no prevention measures or procedures are in place? Having step-by-step procedures in place can help one to act rationally, even in the heat of the moment.

Media and social media monitoring – who is working on these channels and relationships?

Listening/intelligence gathering. While this can be as simple as googling the news, there are also a variety of more sophisticated tools and alerts available, from Google Alerts for free, to paid-for monitoring methods.

Content amplification – which channels and partners can help get your message across?

2. Create – Scenario Planning

Once you’ve thought about the resources you have, the next stage is scenario planning: what sorts of issues could plausibly come up for your organisation? For some sites, cultural heritage and history have the capacity to become live issues in a negative way. It may also be useful to look back to crises that have affected your organisation in the past: are these likely to recur? What did you get right or wrong the last time?

Starting from a blank piece of paper can be hard, so the following diagram offers a structure for thinking about what issues might come up.

In this table, put credible scenarios in the first column. In the second column ask yourself what message you want to get across in each scenario. Finally, in the third column ask yourself who you would want to communicate with (visitors, donors, journalists, etc.) and with what message.

 

When a crisis occurs, the four things you should be aiming for in your information gathering are Accuracy, Timeliness, Completeness and Relevance. Speed is often crucial in communicating well in a crisis, so the more that is prepared in advance, the easier it is to engage quickly.

3. Gathering Together Your Resources

In this stage you need to put together all these resources into something your team can use:

Package your protocols and resources into a user-friendly format – often referred to as a playbook – which is really just all the scenarios, drafted documents and thinking that you’ve put together in the processes above.

Make sure that everyone knows where to find these materials.

Also establish your content amplification channels and partners.

This set of materials should include decisions about gatekeeping, so that contradictory or confused messaging don’t escape out of the organisation. Even in the smallest organisation, it’s useful to have an agreement in place that e.g. a volunteer social media person does not tweet without checking in with the organisation’s leader in a specific set of circumstances. In larger organisations, it might mean tighter checking than usual, for example between a press officer and CEO before hitting ‘send’ on a statement.

4. Rehearse

Rehearsing for a crisis is the element that can take the most time, and is much easier for larger organisations. Steps you might rehearse include:

Practice interviews on likely issues

A desktop scenario trial, drawing on your playbook

Bring in your wider team, and show what role they play in the process

Rehearsals are good for flagging up areas of weakness and can show you what you need to improve.

Practice makes perfect. If you are able to bring your team together to do this on a semi-regular basis, you will find it very useful should the real scenario ever occur. As ever, update and repeat is the key to making this effective.

How often should you rehearse?

The ideal is annual or twice-yearly updates to contact lists, protocols and messages, with new simulations every one to two years, and induction training for new crisis team members in key roles. You might also want to call for a new round of rehearsal if there is a significant change in leadership, or if, following a crisis, you want to revisit an element that did not work so well.

Even if you don’t have the time and resources for all of this, the principle still stands that even a little forethought before you are confronted with a crisis will really help. Minimum preparation might include creating a Q&A, drafting a line to take on likely scenarios, and drafting a few emails to stakeholders to deal with a particular situation.

Media training

Media training can be extremely helpful, especially for senior staff and spokespeople on sensitive topics.

How to Respond When a Crisis Arrives

Have some credit in the bank.

When a crisis hits, it is useful to have some ‘credit in the bank’ in terms of well-developed relationships with local media – whether that’s a newspaper or local radio station. Radio is a particularly powerful and often overlooked medium – possibly the best place to invest time and resources if you are going to extend in just one direction.

Most heritage organisations now have a social media presence – again, this is a sphere with which you will need to engage if something goes wrong, so build friendly relationships there in good times.

Remember that in reputation management internal is external, and vice-versa. “Those internal stakeholders – volunteers, partners, staff, caterers, supply chain, are all potential ambassadors for your organisation. They are also potential detractors. So invest in those relationships.”

Activate the plan

When you do find yourself in a moment of crisis, activating the plan very much echoes the steps used in preparation. This is one of the reasons why time is never wasted in preparation. Speed is of the essence – activate your plan as soon as possible.

The stages in a nutshell

Muster your previously agreed response team.

Start monitoring the situation using the intelligence-gathering channels identified in your plan.

Establish facts and create content. In some issues and crises, pinning down what happened is vital but not always easy. Perhaps the facts involve human error, and perhaps some of those involved are concerned about the impact on their job or those of colleagues. How do you establish facts when not everyone will be invested in having them revealed? Who in your team is best placed to get an accurate picture?

Finalise and send out your communications – drawing on your pre-prepared content, and following pre-agreed sign-off procedures. Usually, this will be agreed at a senior level, perhaps involving your CEO, Chair of trustees, head of HR, communications team and an element of legal advice where that is available.

Lock down your communications channels and concentrate on the ones you have decided to use. In some situations, it will be appropriate to ask allies with the relevant information to spread messaging on your behalf.

Balancing the volume of communication

This is a question of judgement that will depend on the situation, but try to put yourself in the shoes of the recipient.

Regular audiences may have close attachments to local heritage organisations, and are used to hearing from them – try not to leave them in the dark.

However, if the problem is a difficulty at your site, it may be worth waiting for a while, getting all the detail and passing on a full picture of the bad news rather than spreading it out over time and thus unnecessarily extending the crisis.

Sometimes you can’t share all the facts – but silence can be risky too

Confidentiality means that sometimes you can’t share all the facts in the crisis, including some that would cast your organisation in a better light.

From an operational, legal, risk-averse point of view, you might want to say virtually nothing. Bear in mind this carries risks too: will your visitors, staff and stakeholders leap to a particular conclusion to fill the void? Take control of the narrative rather than allowing speculation to fill a communication vacuum.

The Golden Rules of Crisis Response

Above all, speak with one voice. Don’t allow confusion or internal conflict find its way into the public space. In addition:

Choose the right spokesperson – sometimes organisations can spend a very long time arguing about the wording of a statement. Ultimately, the person delivering the message may be just as or more important in this highly visual age. Video clips and broadcast media may be what carries your message everywhere. Who is the right person for your issue?

You are there to tell your story, not defend others. Work out what your issue is in the bigger picture, and what you want to talk about. Don’t get drawn into related issues, or (to take an example from the pandemic) your views on public health measures or what you think of the government. It’s likely that a central aim is going to be to reassure your staff and reach out to your potential visitors.

Be human and empathise. Empathy is a great strength, not a weakness.

Correct the record. If there have been mistakes or misreporting, it is important to say so.

Own it, don’t bury it: some rules for effective recovery

Depending on the issue you could end up with a change in how your organisation is perceived, including long-term scarring if the issue is misuse of funds or misbehaviour of staff or volunteers, which may not go away quickly. Therefore it’s important to recognise that reputation recovery begins as soon as the crisis ends: understand what the effect has been and how to mitigate or fix that.

Remember:

You cannot change what happened – but you can tell people how you managed it, and what you are going to do now.

You and your organisation will have learned in some way – the important thing is you take action based on that learning as effectively, quickly and responsibly as possible.

Address specific issues – leveraging media relations, direct communication, and use of owned channels to challenge negative conceptions and misconceptions.

Have a dialogue with everyone that matters – ensure that your employees, donors and partners understand how you addressed the issue and how you’ve improved. The effects will play out in your own ecosystem as well as the outside world.

Above all, own it, and tell people how you have addressed the cause of the crisis, and moved on. It is rarely better to bury something and forget it.

“After recovery comes a period of self-reflection and assessment. This allows us not only to identify and rectify the issues that led to the crisis situation but also to improve our own methodology for managing future crises, should they arise.”

Weathering a crisis well also makes you stronger and more capable as a leader, less likely to overreact to smaller issues, and with a powerful marketable skill in a period where change and challenge are only becoming more common.

This article was written by Kate Smith of Goosegrass Culture.

Adapted from content originally created and delivered by:

  • Patrick Harrison Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs at Weber Shandwick
  • Peter Rogers, Associate Director, Crisis Communications, Weber Shandwick.
  • Media Trust.

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