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Develop positive partner relationships before a crisis

01 Jun, 2020 Issues and crises, Reputation, trust, stakeholder relations

A partner is any organization with a role in aiding a crisis response. Partner relationships should be developed ahead of any crises so there is a solid foundation for well-coordinated work through each crisis. Employees are the most important stakeholders of all, but are a separate subject to discuss.

Typical partners for your organization may be the police and fire and ambulance emergency service units, State emergency services, utilities, and health and medical authorities. In cases where your organization is geographically dispersed, the relationships should be developed at each location of operations, where the contact telephone number and email address for every nominated contact person in the partner organization should be documented and updated every three months.

Each potential partner would play a specific role during a crisis, which should be determined beforehand by agreement with them or should be developed in the early stages of the crisis. Each partner should nominate its representative who has the authority to make decisions during the crisis.

A plan should be drafted for partner communication during a crisis (eg, email alerts, draft text messages, conference calls) to which everyone has agreed.

Despite every good intention to show partners a preview of media releases, it may not be possible to do so. Some aspects may be time-sensitive, and the crisis communication head may decide not to share this information due to the possibility or likelihood of a leak or premature public reference to the information by partners – not necessarily intentionally. Such leaks would most likely be made by people other than the contact person – people who may not be aware of the sensitive nature of the information or may be too rushed to remember. At the least, partners should be supplied with information at the same time as the media.

And remember that partners aren’t always your friends. Where blame is being spread in an emergency, they will always put themselves first.

Government

Various levels of government are vital to your organization. At the top are the elected representatives at federal and State level. They all have their staff and advisors. There are regulators at federal and State level to deal with. Plus utilities. As noted in another of my articles, government is the most important crisis news source, which is another reason to keep them in the loop. For instance, in the most damaging crisis of all in most of our lives, COVID-19, government spokespersons at federal, State and local level have been essential for keeping communities informed.

Financial markets

One of the main impacts of a crisis is on the future profitability of your organization, if it is in the private sector. Accordingly, it is vital to think through the communication pipeline connecting to the financial markets. Obviously the media will want to know the financial impact of the crisis from the start. Your senior managers need to be proactive and start communicating with their shareholders, bankers, suppliers, insurers and financial advisers. But first, if your organization is a public company, it is obliged to provide urgent updates to its home stock exchange about the financial implications. If the situation is not monitored closely and managed carefully, the financial markets may over-react to the impact of a crisis, so it is vital to contact the priority financial stakeholders urgently and keep a flow of information to the sources of information to the financial community, such as financial analysts, stockbrokers and advisers, and the government regulators of the financial markets.

Contractors

In these days of outsourcing, contractors are playing an important role in the supply chain. Therefore communication channels to contractors should be kept in mind, especially in the planning and preparation for a crisis. Usually contractors have different systems from their client organization, which can delay communication efforts. Therefore the crisis planning should take into account the coordination of organizational plans with contractors’ plans.

Other stakeholder groups

Pareto’s Principle applies to other stakeholder groups: around 20% of the people within each stakeholder group are responsible for generating 80% of what your business needs to keep operating. The crisis communication plan needs to outline how to reach those people with information in a crisis before they hear about it from the media or others. In this way, your organization will have the opportunity to explain its side of the story first. These key people, who are the most important to the future of the organization, are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when they hear alternative versions about the crisis later from other sources.

Needs of stakeholders

The first step in addressing the needs of stakeholders is to identify them. Stakeholders may vary according to the situation, but your core stakeholders will literally have a stake in every emergency or crisis your organization is involved with.

The various key stakeholders can be identified and contacted as soon as possible, preferably by telephone. When the task of making contact is divided up among your designated contact people, it doesn’t take very long to reach those stakeholders. Where possible, the verbal contact should be supported by documentation sent by email or sent to a shared resource in the iCloud etc to minimize the possibility of recipients misunderstanding key facts. In turn, they will contact their own set of contacts, so the reliable and accurate information your organization generates is being spread fast by these opinion leaders.

Not all stakeholders are supporters. It is vital to analyze your main stakeholders and identify whether they are advocates, adversaries or ambivalents. Their reactions can be anticipated based on their affinity for your organization and the way similar groups have responded in the past. It is best to aim at maintaining the loyalty and respect of advocates, at discouraging adversaries from becoming involved and at encouraging ambivalents to stay neutral. Communication with them needs to allow for two-way dialogue because they may be able to offer insights about themselves and the handling of the crisis. In fact, a crisis may provide an opportunity to strengthen stakeholder relationships.

How to assess stakeholder reactions

You should note what each stakeholder group will want to know and their likely reactions to the crisis. The stakeholders should receive adequate communication and develop trust in your organization. Consistent themes and messages should be conveyed with empathy. A reaction management strategy should be developed to minimize the extent of negative stakeholder reactions. Management should estimate the financial impact of negative reactions and prioritize the list according to their possible impact. A forecast can be made of the amount of time likely to be needed by senior management to become involved with stakeholder relations management, which is always labor-intensive.

Timely and accurate information needs to be supplied to stakeholders. The focus should be on the most important stakeholders, those who have the most impact on your organization’s ability to conduct its business. As noted above, around 20% of the group have 80% of the impact, so it makes sense to concentrate on them and their needs. At the same time, minor stakeholders should not be forgotten; decide what communication needs to be initiated with them.

Avoid these five types of mistakes

  • Inadequate accessibility to stakeholders
  • Lack of understandability in the haste to communicate
  • Lack of enthusiasm in the contact
  • Problems with timeliness (too little, too late)
  • Perceptions of arrogance (eg stakeholders are not valued)

As a guide, it is best to be forthcoming with information, to focus on building trust and to provide good technical information to stakeholders. Methods to communicate with stakeholders include dedicated web pages or extranets, telephone calls from management or their delegates, copies of information material supplied to media, specially convened meetings with them, text messages and social media alerts about the impending or unfolding crisis.

It is important to send consistent messages to the various types of stakeholders because some of them may also be stakeholders in other organizations involved in the crisis.

Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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