In 2020, Expect the Unexpected. Here’s How to Plan for It.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that the days of attacking a crisis from a bustling boardroom are over – at least for now. Modern crisis planning needs to account for virtual circumstances and a rapid-fire news cycle. Although even the best plan is not a panacea, a robust course of action developed prior to an actual crisis can provide a company or organization with a roadmap that limits guesswork, saves time and results in a clear and concise response that reflects its values and brand.

As companies and organizations grapple with how to navigate crises – especially politically charged situations – here are some tips to follow to build a plan that can eliminate the need to start from square one when crisis strikes.

A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis helps organizations anticipate and avoid threats and determine strategies that focus on strengths. The SWOT also identifies new opportunities – whether soon-to-be-announced projects, initiatives or hires – that could be leveraged to push back on negative stories. A good SWOT should also account for regulatory and/or legislative threats and opportunities and identify congressional and stakeholder allies who can be called upon to validate an organization’s stance. When a crisis hits, a SWOT analysis can form the basis of the first allegation grid – a chart identifying negative claims that could be raised internally or externally, and appropriate messaging to respond to and pivot away from the claim.

It may seem elementary but writing out the steps a company or organization plans to take should an unforeseen negative situation arise will ensure best practices are met and enable quick decision-making. By answering the immediate question of “what do we do?” messaging errors can be minimized and a timely, coherent response produced and disseminated. A plan should include key spokespeople, members of the “Crisis Cabinet,” the internal approval process for press statements, and a communications distribution strategy. It’s also important to reinforce the basic principles of crisis communications in the plan: don’t lie, get everything out at once and stay ahead of the news cycle.

Even the best plan only works if there is internal buy-in. Make sure that everyone knows how to use the plan and is prepared to do so. This preparation should include ongoing media training for company spokespeople to keep them sharp and focused should they have to give an interview or go on camera with little notice. Organizations should also clearly lay out steps for notifying internal team members and external consultants about plan updates and changes. Finally, be sure to save crisis plans in an accessible, secure, online location so that the most up-to-date version is available to those who need it – whether in the office or working remotely.

Knowing where and how the conversation is forming and taking place will help organizations or businesses anticipate developments and respond – perhaps even before the situation becomes a crisis. Regularly monitoring and assessing conversations on traditional and social media can often give an organization a heads up that something is brewing and provided the needed time to strategize and prepare responses.

When a crisis strikes, getting ahead of the communications curve is key. For businesses in heavily regulated industries, alerting congressional delegations, federal agency contacts, and other allies before the news shapes the narrative is incredibly important. Keeping employees and stakeholders up to date will also help to ensure that information comes from management rather than reporters or social media. Use internal communications to reiterate expectations or polices on speaking publicly on internal matters to ensure that designated spokespeople are the focus of media attention. Establishing open channels of communication, both in-office and virtually, can help ease internal misunderstandings.

In the current volatile social climate, even apolitical statements or operations can become part of an unflattering and politicized headline. Companies that have clear internal principles and values agreed upon and articulated ahead of time will fare better in crafting responses that conform with branding and public statements on values and organizational culture. These principles and values should broadly guide messaging and ensure that even a quick response does not clash with brand messaging.

2020 has been a case study of the old cliché: expect the unexpected. From a global pandemic to nation-wide protests combined with the added challenges of fires in the west and hurricanes in the south, businesses and organizations of every size and in every industry have been thrown nothing but curve balls. Although planning for these events may seem impossible, having a plan to respond to the unexpected is not. And, in an election season marked by acrimonious partisan politics, the last quarter of 2020 will continue to pose new challenges and require new responses.

Erin Dunne brings to Cogent clients her expertise in crafting communications strategies that effectively reach audiences on both digital and traditional media platforms. As a former foreign and defense policy writer for the Washington Examiner and a campaign communications strategist, she always has an eye towards tomorrow’s story. Erin’s complete bio can be found here.