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How to get senior management to take notice of your crisis communication plan

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of www.cuttingedgepr.com

Since 9/11, the world has become a more dangerous place. Every day we see in the media the latest terrorism incident that has been thwarted or happened in countries around the world. And, of course, there are all the types of corporate crises that could happen, many related to the Internet and information technology.

According to a September 2006 poll conducted by Harris Interactive of senior executives in large corporations, the top crisis situations that worry corporate executives were:

61% compromise of corporate information systems

55% terrorism

40% corporate wrongdoing

32% environmental mishaps

30% negative claims about products, health or safety

29% Internet rumors and misinformation

24% industrial accidents

23% product contamination or tampering

21% product recalls

19% workplace violence

Whether you are inhouse or a consultant, crises are relevant to you as a communicator because crises are largely about the perceptions of stakeholders. Operational managers can deal with operational emergencies, but crises happen when emergency incidents impact on stakeholders, whose actions can affect the ability of your organization to survive. That’s where you come in – to communicate with key stakeholder groups such as employees, customers, shareholders, government regulators and suppliers.

This is what I am doing this week (apart from writing this article, of course!). In my contract role with a large engineering firm, I am responsible for “the communication, maintenance and updating” of the company’s regional crisis plan. The company hasn’t had a crisis plan in place at State level before, so I have prepared a plan according to the company’s national template. Having done this, I will brief all staff about their role in a crisis, conduct workshops for relevant managers and arrange a crisis simulation. This is easy to arrange because our parent company is insisting on the preparation. (Of course, every project has its own site emergency management plan in place.)

It’s not easy to get senior management to actively support crisis communication plans. Most of them don’t want to know about crises. They know the chance of being caught up in a crisis is tiny and they don’t want to take time away from their daily work priorities to deal with something that just might happen one day, and then again, it might not. And crisis preparation costs money in staff time, in equipment and other resources.

What’s more, many executives perceive crises and emergencies only in terms of an operational response (“put the fire out and return to full operations ASAP”). They look at communication only as an afterthought to the real work. This is an extremely frustrating attitude to encounter. Those executives will need to be convinced of the impact on your organization’s operations and therefore profitability before they take full notice of your communication plan. (In a government agency the discussion would need to be about the impact on output and the fallout from politicians to a public shambles.)

One fatal assumption many organizations make is to think their own IT and server will be available during a crisis. You need to ensure you can communicate with key stakeholders from your back up system for a significant time during a crisis. Lack of thought in this area could come back to bite you. Save your crisis response material on a separate server and regularly update it so that you can use it during a crisis, even from other premises.

A great crisis communication plan is only as good as the extent to which it is implemented. Here are some ideas to get senior management to respect your crisis communication plan and support its implementation:

  • Be an ambassador of communication. Every person in your organization involved in emergency management should know your first name and face. Meet the emergency-procedures planners informally and talk to them about how better communication with key stakeholders would help them achieve their crisis management goals.

  • Inform senior managers of clear objectives for communication in a crisis. When many emergency response planners think of ‘communication’ they tend to think of two-way radios or other forms of telecommunication. It might be better to use terms like ‘stakeholder information’ or ‘public communication’ in a crisis.

  • Tell senior managers how the overall response and recovery operation is more effective by investing in crisis communication activities. In fact, poor crisis communication could destroy the organization.

  • Always ensure you have fully completed your allotted tasks in the preparation of a crisis communication plan that you bring to discuss at committee meetings. Other people can tell if you have rushed your preparation or if you have neglected parts of it, so they will lose respect if you have failed to honor your commitments.

  • Since most executives are busy with their day-to-day activities, they tend to put off the time needing to be spent on emergency and crisis response activities. You can take the initiative and systematically arrange meetings with key managers to discuss the importance and the broad content of their communication role in a crisis

  • There are many high-profile examples you can cite of good and bad examples of crisis communication to back your case. Document each example concisely and circulate the documents in a regularly spaced series, ie a month or two apart, to management to drive your message home to them.

Any concerns about management not understanding the importance of crisis communication must be addressed in the pre-crisis planning phase. You need to be proactive and meet with the emergency response planners now. Show them your competence and expertise. Be energetic. Set your own time aside for thinking through and documenting for your reference any action points. Act promptly on those action points

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website, www.cuttingedgepr.com, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.

 

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