Yes, You Need a Crisis Plan! Here’s What it Should Say

It’s every company’s worst fear: A horrible employee decision leads to front page news and a PR crisis. In many cases, HR is on the front lines of such responses. Having a crisis plan ahead of time can literally save the company—and your career.

Some recent examples: Starbucks faced protests and lots of negative press after managers at a Philadelphia Starbucks had two black customers arrested for loitering in the store (I thought loitering is the point of Starbucks). The company responded correctly with a CEO apology tour, a change in policy and all stores shutting down on May 29 for employee training.

United CEO Oscar Munoz
United CEO Oscar Munoz

United Airlines didn’t fare as well. When it faced public outcry for having an overbooked passenger dragged from his seat, the company initially blamed the “belligerent” passenger and only later apologized for the “overbooking situation.” Since then, United has altered its policies and relied more on HR to help respond to such problems.

“In the past, we let rules, policies and procedures get in the way of doing the right thing for our customer,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said at this summer’s Society for Human Resource Management conference. But HR leaders at United have led the way in reworking policies and practices to empower employees to exercise more judgement and empathy in such situations.

“For such a long time, HR was the last resort to addressing problems after they had already risen … HR is now the first place we go,” said Munoz.

Crisis communication: 8 steps

Is your organization prepared for a crisis? It can be anything from a #MeToo complaint to a workplace shooting. Regardless of the reason, you need a plan.

David Rittof, CEO Modern Management
David Rittof,
CEO Modern

“Think of a crisis plan as an insurance policy. You may never need it, but if a crisis strikes, you’ll be happy to have it,” says David Rittof, the president of Modern Management consulting firm in Chicago.

HR can lead the way in preparing a crisis communication plan. Rittof suggests these steps:

  1. Anticipate possible crises and their impact. Examine your organization’s vulnerabilities, identify stakeholders and do your “what if” homework: What if we have to recall a product … shut down for a hurricane … replace an exec?
  2. Select your crisis communication team. Include HR, the CEO, PR/communication director, VP/directors of affected division, outside counsel, etc.
  3. Choose the right spokesperson. It should be someone who has adequate authority, strong communication skills, experience with media and the ability to stay calm under pressure. You want someone who has a professional appearance but doesn’t look too polished. “You don’t need someone who is media savvy right off the bat,” says Rittof. “It can be trained.”
  4. Prepare a ‘holding statement.’ This is a few sentences that you’ll immediately send to the press, employees and customers as soon as a crisis hits, even before you have all the facts. It also establishes the communication method that people will look to (Twitter, press release, etc.). Example of a holding statement: We have initiated our crisis-response plan. The safety of our employees and the public is our No. 1 priority. We will post updates on social media and our website as soon as we have more information.
  5. When a crisis hits, act fast to minimize damage. Respond quickly but factually. Waiting allows others to drive the narrative. Funnel all communications through one channel. Never say “no comment” to media inquires. (“When people hear ‘no comment’ they immediately think guilt,” says Rittof.)
  6. Put the victim first. Showing sincere concern builds goodwill and casts the organization in a positive light. Don’t be afraid to apologize, but show empathy and concern without admitting liability. Be transparent; the truth will come out eventually.
  7. Pay special attention to social media. It lets you monitor, post and react in real time. Twitter and Facebook are the go-to sources for many journalists and the public.
  8. Hold a crisis postmortem. Determine what went right and wrong, and make adjustments to your crisis communication plan.

The bottom line: As Rittof says, “The public doesn’t expect your company to be infallible, but they do expect you to be honest, direct and to react quickly.”

3 behaviors it takes to lead during a crisis

Justin Menkes, author of Better Under Pressure, studied evaluations of executives to uncover three consistent behaviors it takes to lead effectively during times of trouble:

1. Realistic optimism. Leaders who rise above a crisis realize the actual circumstances of a crisis. Menkes calls it “staring into the sun.” Yet they also can see the opportunity for excelling. They’re passionate, yet pragmatic. Use facts to fight off fear.

2. Bringing order to chaos. Skilled leaders can see clearly even if things seem to be out of control. That requires the ability to remove emotion and anxiety, and untangle the situation piece by piece.

3. Commitment to a greater good. Skilled leaders are able to rally staff around an important goal, and they’re able to convert unhealthy reactions into constructive collaboration.