Undoubtedly, senior leaders across the federal government and in the private sector will at some point in their career face a crisis. To be sure, a crisis can vary dramatically in terms of size, level of severity and duration, and some may never even become public.
Sometimes, such as what we experienced at Office of Personnel Management, a crisis can touch every facet of your organization. However, while no two crises are the same, from a communications perspective there are common approaches and rules of the road that can be applied.
Gone are the days when a reporter’s deadline would be centered around the evening newscast or morning paper. In the digital age, the deadline is now. Given the range of digital platforms that exist and the speed at which information travels, any individual can start the public conversation instantly. In this reality, failing to communicate effectively and accurately in the early moments of a crisis can undermine an organization’s entire response.
Once a crisis happens, you will have little time to think through the people and processes you need to effectively operate. Ask yourself the basic questions now while you have the time and space to answer them. Determine who will be on the initial response team. How will you communicate with each other? Who will speak to the press and other stakeholders? Who are the stakeholders that must be notified and kept in the loop as events unfold? What is your response plan?
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This team should include the agency or organization’s senior leadership as well as senior representation from legal, legislative affairs, and communications departments and any related technical experts. All of this will vary based on the nature and seriousness of the incident, but plan for multiple levels of severity. You can always scale down. Answer these questions beforehand and you will be free to focus on the actual challenge in the moment.
Do not be defensive and walled off. At the outset of a public crisis, you won’t have all the answers. But you should say something. Acknowledge that an event has occurred, that the organization is taking steps to respond and that more information will be provided soon.
If an event becomes public, staying silent while you figure out all the details may give the impression that you are not aware of or effectively responding to the situation. It also leaves you out of the conversation and gives the appearance of a lack of sympathy for individuals who may have been affected. In this endeavor, be cautious, and take the time to ensure every piece of information is factual, but do not hide from the conversations.
Beyond the initial moments, as a crisis evolves and moves forward, the stress and strain can force an organization inward. Resist this urge and communicate regularly. In addition, recognize that communicating is a two way street. Establish avenues, both digital and otherwise, to collect feedback and respond to legitimate questions and concerns. For example, at OPM we consistently used the feedback we received via email, phone calls, and social media platforms to regularly update the question and answer section on our website. We also integrated this feedback into a range of other public statements and materials, such as blogs and speeches.
Your customers and/or the public you serve deserve to know what happened and how they may be impacted. Dig into the details of what happened, how it happened, who was impacted and how to find the ground truth. And then, to the maximum extent possible, release the details and focus on your solutions.
The sooner the details of the crisis are released, the sooner you can focus on the path ahead. A slow trickle of new information regarding the size, scope or impact of the crisis will undercut your ability to talk about your solutions and progress.
For example, months after the breach at OPM, new information was released detailing an additional affected population. While this information was released as soon as it was discovered, it significantly hindered the ability of the agency to focus on the positive work it was doing. The conversation OPM had been building around protecting its systems and providing services to people was dramatically altered, and the agency was forced to spend the next month publicly relitigating the breach and its impact instead of discussing its solutions and progress.
While OPM could not control the timing of the release of this information, per se, the event demonstrates the impact of introducing new details about the incident long after it takes place.
Also, be conscious that as information begins to enter the public domain, false narratives and rumors will start to crop up. Be vigilant in confronting and stopping them before they have a chance to take hold and cause confusion.
A crisis has happened. Your job now is to restore faith and confidence in your organization by defining the narrative before it defines you, not to make excuses for why you are where you are. Chart a clear path forward that addresses your shortcomings and, to the extent possible, repairs the damage done to your customers and the public’s trust. Focus on your progress and be forthcoming about your solutions.
Be a visionary for your organization and a thought leader in your industry. Don’t be a defender of the old guard, be the agent of change that uses a crisis to lead your organization through a necessary transformation.
In addition to managing the response to the breach, and improving the technical capabilities at OPM, our Director Beth Cobert became an ambassador for the work we were doing. She would tell anyone who would listen about OPM’s transformation, what we had learned, and the vision we had for the agency moving forward. That paid real dividends, both as we worked to restore the agency’s image, and as we solicited support from our partners across the government.
The conversation will take place on digital and mobile platforms and it will move quickly. This is a fact of life, not a strategic choice. As an organization responds initially and over time, it must focus and rely on digital and mobile platforms. Understanding this fact and embracing this reality offers both opportunities and challenges. From a customer service and transparency perspective, these platforms provide an easy and robust way to collect and disseminate information. The range of digital tools at an organization’s disposal vary greatly in terms of reach, precision, and efficiency. From Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn and beyond, each platform reaches different audiences in different ways and with different speeds and precision.
The effectiveness of these platforms can only be realized if you have the right people in place to harness their capabilities. Digital staff should no longer be considered a “nice to have.” They are a crucial element of any communications team, and organizations should invest in high-quality talent and elevate their importance and standing both on the communications team and across the organization. This is a reality during normal day-to-day operations that becomes increasingly important during a crisis.
Responding to a crisis is stressful, chaotic, and fast-paced, leaving little time to align the people, processes, and strategies necessary to be successful. There is also no set playbook nor silver bullet. But planning ahead and understanding the context of the environment in which you will be functioning will increase your organization’s ability to succeed in what will be a deeply challenging time.
Mike Amato is a former director of communications for the Office of Personnel Management and the House Armed Services Committee and is now managing director of CLS Strategies in Washington, D.C.