13 Feb 2014

6 Crisis Communications Lessons From a Snowstorm

Winter snowsOn the drive into SHIFT’s Boston office today, I was watching the local plows and snow equipment move around in advance of yet another snowstorm in the winter of 2014.

There’s a decent analogy to be made between handling a snowstorm and handling a PR crisis. Let’s look at these 6 lessons.

1. Prepare for the storm.

Whether you’re a state government buying heavy equipment or a homeowner buying another shovel and an extra bag of calcium chloride, preparing for a storm is the easiest way to mitigate its effects.

Likewise, preparing for a PR crisis can make weathering the actual crisis much easier. Get all of your ducks in a row long before the crisis hits, from phone lists to talking points. Anticipate as many problems as possible and prepare responses to them so that nothing surprises you.

2. Warn about the storm in advance.

While weather forecasting still has the occasional wild miss, it’s generally gotten better as technology has improved, to the point where we can effectively warn people about the storm with time to spare. People can prepare themselves to handle the storm.

That same technology gives us the ability to listen carefully to conversations for hints of an upcoming crisis communications storm. If you can give advance notice of some bad news, you can often reduce its impact. By the time the bulk of complaints happen, chances are it will be “old news” and less worthy of coverage.

3. Stay ahead of the storm.

Anyone who lives in a region that gets a lot of snow knows that the last thing you want to do is wait until it’s all over before you start shoveling. You shovel with the storm so that while you get the same total amount of punishment, it’s made more manageable.

The same is true in crisis communications. If you wait until things build up, you may find yourself crushed under the avalanche. Speak early, speak often, share as much as you can. Would you rather face a room full of reporters all clamoring for the bad news at once, or have the ability to give one on one briefings where you can tell more of your side of the story?

4. Be cautious of who participates.

If you are or know a parent with young kids, you know that shoveling snow with them can be counterproductive. For every shovelful of snow you move, another two shovelfuls get knocked into the driveway. It’s best to give them something nonessential to shovel or just tell them to go play somewhere else in the yard.

Crisis communications is no different – you want your best people or agency handling the big problems, the people who have experience in crisis communications. Employees who haven’t been extensively coached or who haven’t had crisis communications experience can often cause more damage than they fix. Better to let eager, interested folks help out in other ways if possible.

5. A little bit can cause big problems.

You don’t need a foot of snow to cause chaotic traffic problems. Just an inch or two in an unprepared municipality can create legitimately life-threatening situations.

Similarly, you don’t need to be caught committing large-scale atrocities to earn bad press. Something as simple as a junior employee making an embarrassing video of your product is enough to cause a massive problem. Be aware of this, and set up your corporate culture as best as you can to prevent or mitigate problems in advance.

6. There will always be another storm.

The winter of 2014 has been a long line of storms, 16 major storms so far. Many folks are still cleaning up snow and ice from the last storm, and another is on its way. That’s just life in many parts of the country.

So it is in public relations too – there is always another crisis to be had. While it’s inadvisable to go seeking them or creating them, recognize that there are always more problems ahead on the road, and part of working in the public relations field is being okay with that, possibly even enjoying the adrenaline rush from it.

May you weather the storms of winter and crisis communications equally wonderfully!

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

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