By Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC
As a meetings industry professional, you dread when you get pulled aside at an event, by a colleague who whispers, “We have a situation.”
You feel a rush of panic; an air of dread; a feeling of confusion.
How you deal with a “situation” today is different than how you would have addressed the same situation five to ten years ago. Why? Because your attendees are changing.
Highly sensitive attendees can turn a small situation into a big crisis. Meeting professionals are finding that often it happens when an attendee is critical of a single word, story, or example shared by one of those speakers you worked so hard to vet. If you read evaluations, chances are you are noticing that they are far more snarky and mean-spirited than in years past. Many speakers will tell you that it is not uncommon for their best tried-and-true stories, case studies, and hilarious punch lines to become criticized on social media during your event and often while the speaker is still on stage.
Think of it like this – ten years ago we were told that a happy customer tells three people and an angry customer tells 10-12 people. Today, an angry, dissatisfied attendee simply tweets their displeasure with the hashtag of #YourEvent and everyone knows about it. This triggers a situation.
Left unchecked, the situation smolders and has a real potential to reach a flash point. An ugly flashpoint can damage the reputation of the event and the sponsoring organization. That reputational damage is then converted into a negative revenue impact in the months and years that follow, such as if people decide not to attend the event or to renew their association membership.
Your situation can easily ignite into a financial crisis and a membership crisis.
What should you do?
Below we outline a formal 5-step process you should follow.
1) Start by conducting a Vulnerability Assessment.
This is where you identify all of the things that could damage your reputation and revenue. It ranges from the sudden things like a natural disaster or a mass casualty shooting, to those smoldering things such as sexual harassment, or an ugly social media post that goes viral.
In your assessment, you should examine the double-edged sword nature of social media. Every conference urges attendees to post comments to social media. But if you evaluated those posts, you would find an overwhelming number of participants posting or only a few who seek to be role models.
As most events transition to have their own event app, examine whether that app pays for itself or whether it expedites posts to social media that can do more harm than good.
2) Develop a Crisis Communications Plan.
This must be a thorough, step-by-step document that guides you through the process of gathering information about your situation, confirming it, then disseminating an appropriate statement to all who need to receive an explanation.
Built into those five steps would be a predetermined process. Strategically and relentlessly monitoring social media at an event needs to be a 24/7 job assigned to up to three people. Should your listening team detect a potential situation, a key component is to find the individuals at the heart of the situation. You have to privately and separately speak to the accused and the accuser. Time is of the essence. Your initial goal is to listen in-person so the “situation” doesn’t play out on social media. Engaging on social media can amplify and magnify the situation.
In some situations, a formal statement must be made from the main stage of the event, with a possible mass email going out to all attendees, and in the case of associations, an email to all members. These actions are covered in steps three, four, and five.
3) Write out Pre-Written Statements.
Prepare these statements now, that you would use if and when they are needed. Start with the most troublesome and likely issues identified in your Vulnerability Assessment. Your statements must use fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice options in order to remain timely. Because the speed of social media controls the initial narrative, these pre-written statements are three to six hours faster than if you tried to craft a perfect statement in the midst of your crisis and while still trying to run a successful event.
4) Train your spokesperson.
Someone has to be prepared to read the pre-written statement to your audience and then respond to tough questions. Essentially, you need to go through the same type of Media Training that corporate spokespeople go through. Many associations provide Media Training to their board members before the event.
5) Conduct a Crisis Communications Drill.
Test your team members, test your Crisis Communications Plan, test your Pre-Written Statements, and test your spokesperson.
Is all of this really necessary? Is it overkill? The answer lies in a simple mathematical formula in which you begin by calculating the financial damage one situation could cost your organization. Chances are the time and money you put into the five steps will be far less than the cost of letting a situation turn into a crisis.
Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”
More crisis communications articles: