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An April Fool Who Lost His Crisis Communications Plan

Imagine you invest lots of time and money to develop and write your crisis communications plan, then you lose it. It’s happening more often than you might think.

To find out how and why this is happening, take a listen to today’s BraudCast.

Gerard’s Top 5 Tips for 2009 – Day Two – Can We Talk?

Your executives will be talking more in 2009 and so will your employees. With the economic issues we all face, the media and employees will be asking tough questions… perhaps the toughest your executives have ever been asked. And when times are tough, employee morale can go down and employee talk can turn negative, further hurting the organization’s reputation, image and productivity.

That’s why in the first quarter of 2009, I’d recommend 3 types of training within your organization: Media Training, Presentation Training and Ambassador Training.

We’ll talk about all 3 in a minute, but first let’s look at some typical speaking styles to understand why you need these training programs, even if you’ve done them before.

If we look at the 2008 election cycle, we see 5 dominant spokespeople and see 5 distinct styles that you will likely see in your spokespeople. Look at President Bush, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Sarah Palin and John McCain… and to understand my point of view, please put your political views aside and just look at their styles.

Bush is the top guy… like many CEOs he’s very knowledgeable, but is a horrible speaker. His inability to communicate well undermines the confidence people have in him. This happens to many CEOs.

Obama has the natural gift of speaking with great rhythm and style, and he has the ability to inspire and motivate. He could read a grocery list and get a standing ovation. Few people have this natural gift.

Joe Biden is the unfiltered speaker. Like many executives, he’s prone to say something stupid at anytime. He is the proverbial loose cannon on deck. Many executives think this is the proper way to be honest. Boy are they wrong.

John McCain is the classic humble spokesperson. He has an incredible story to tell, but refuses to tell it because of humility. His skills as an orator are good, but could be better. Great stories are a part of great communications. Many executives fail to use stories effectively.

Sarah Palin, like many female executives, has a lot of pizzazz and spunk. She, like Obama, has some great natural gifts as a speaker in front of a crowd. But while her spunk and pizzazz are appealing to many, it also rubs many people the wrong way. Female speakers may also face sexist preconceptions and prejudices that male speakers don’t have to deal with.

Chances are in your organization you have people who can’t put 2 words together, people who are naturally gifted, people who are too humble to tell a great story, people who make you cringe because you never know what kind of stupid or inappropriate thing they will say, and people, who while gifted, might rub some people the wrong way.

Media Training, Presentation Training and Ambassador Training can help you conquer the challenges of all 5 of these communications styles.

Media Training is, of course, designed to help with those difficult media interviews. In a time like this, they can help executives communicate honestly and teach them how to handle negative questions.

Presentation Training is needed to help executives communicate challenges in small group meetings, as well as in meetings with large groups of employees. You’ll certainly need these skills if layoffs are in the cards. Regardless of your challenges, regular face-to-face communications with employees provides a high degree of comfort in uncertain times.

Ambassador Training is a program I designed for mid-level managers and ordinary employees, to help them communicate positively, rather than constantly repeating negatives. It combines some of the skill sets you find in both Media Training and Presentation Training, especially the ability to speak positively and answer tough questions honestly, without repeating negatives.

As an example, imagine this: Your company lays of 500 people and an employee wearing your company logo on their shirt is in a grocery store line. Let’s imagine the person in front of them in line sees the logo, has heard the bad news, and says, “Wow, things must be bad where you work?” Most employees would instinctively respond, “Oh, it’s bad and getting worse.” This type of negative response then fuels the continuation of a negative conversation.

Most employee have told me over the years that they do not want to be a part of that negative conversation, but in their awkwardness and embarrassment, they don’t know how to get out of it. The proper way to get out of it is with a positive response. But the fact is, a negative response is easier and it is more in line with human nature.

If we return to that grocery store scene, a positive response might be, “Well, your heart has to go out to the people who have left, but that means the rest of us need to double our effort so we can be profitable and bring them all back.” If an employee said that, what would happen to the conversation in the grocery store? It would either turn positive or end right there. Negative comments are like throwing gasoline on a fire; it makes it more volatile. Positive comments are like a fire extinguisher; they’ll put an end to the negative fire quickly.

As you propose training for 2009, realize many people may be resistant. Some think if they’ve trained once they know it all. But the fact is, media training and presentation training are not skills that a person masters in a single session. It needs to be an annual program with refreshers.

Also realize that some people will be resistant because they fear they will perform poorly or because they are embarrassed to fail either on a personal level or in front of colleagues, during training. Many will even say that they would rather wing it. Your trainer needs to make sure that training is done in a safe environment, that each participant can see some improvement, and that each participant is predisposed to the idea that training is not a one-time event, but should be part of an ongoing program for personal improvement.

A good analogy to make to your participants is to compare it to sports. Every great athletic performer has coaches and every great executive needs personal coaches as well. Likewise, great athletes don’t become great after a single practice; they become great because they practice daily and constantly try to improve.

And on the topic of practice, your participants in Media Training, Presentation Training and Ambassador Training need to be reminded that they must practice their skills in daily conversations in order to master the techniques of speaking positively, keeping information jargon free and simple, and knowing how to respond positively to negative questions.

Finally, in tight economic times, PR budgets get cut quickly. Be ready to make your case that, whether speaking to the media, to a group of employees, or even in informal public situations, the things your executives say can have a direct impact on your profits and the performance of your workforce. The cost of training can be miniscule compared to its financial benefits.

If you or your executives would like to begin the learning process, they can sign up for my 29-day online Media Training program at www.braudcommunications.com Everyday for 29 days you’ll receive a 3-6 minute audio lesson that you can listen to on your computer or i-pod.

If you have questions about how to deal with executives who may be resistant or embarrassed to train, send an e-mail to me or call me via my contact information at www.braudcommunications.com

In our next lesson, we’ll look at the role you need to play as a writer in 2009.

Gerard’s Day 1 Tip for 2009 – Dealing with the crisis

Welcome to the New Year. Generally, the New Year is a time of great optimism, but heading into 2009 there is a lot of uncertainty. It’s going to be especially challenging for a lot of people in public relations, so I’ve put together this short 5 part series to provide some guidance to communications professionals for 2009.

So here is our agenda for the week… On Monday we’ll talk about how you should help your organization deal with the impending financial crisis and crisis communications. Tuesday we’ll talk about how you should discuss your economic challenges with the media and employees. On Wordsmith Wednesday we’ll discuss the role writing should play in your 2009 communications. Thursday we’ll discuss what role, if any, Social Media should play in your communications, and Friday we’ll stay with the Social Media Topic as we explore training for executives who might participate in Social Media.

Let’s jump into our first lesson…

The economic crisis is, by its very name, a crisis. That means in 2009 you need to be more prepared than ever for crisis communications. The proper way to deal with a crisis is to have a crisis communications plan. To properly define the term, this is not your emergency operations plan, which is sometimes generically referred to as a crisis plan. And, this is not your business continuity plan. This is a plan specifically designed to communicate with the media, employees and key stakeholders. It is sometimes used in conjunction with the emergency operations plan and the business continuity plan, but it is often used when neither of the other plans are needed.

I’ve studied crisis communications extensively since 1994 and one of the things that I’ve learned is that most crisis communications plans are grossly flawed. In fact, I’d say that most are written with fatal flaws. So the first thing you need to do is to identify whether you first have a plan, and if you have a plan, you need to determine if your plan is flawed. If it is, you need to correct those flaws, before you truly need it. I always say that the best time to write a crisis communications plan is on a clear sunny day when you have clarity of thought and are not enveloped by emotions associated with a real crisis.

Here are five simple test questions to help you determine if your plan is perfect or it is flawed. You might want to get a pen and pencil to take notes

Question 1, if a crisis breaks out right now, whether it is a fire, explosion, shooting, layoffs or an executive arrested for embezzling, can you pick up your crisis communications plan and safely navigate the crisis from start to finish because it tells you exactly what to do page by page, and it is so simple to use that anyone who can read can execute it flawlessly? If you answered yes, great. If you answered no, you’ve discovered your first fatal flaw. Most crisis communications plans that I’ve reviewed over the years state a lot of policy, but give few if any true step-by-step directives. Essentially,  they are PR 101 rulebooks. On the day of the crisis, no one will benefit by picking up the plan and reading it. They don’t tell you exactly what to do or when to do it; they give you no real time tables and directives. Essentially, they are skeletons with no meat on them. Ultimately, they require you, the communications person, to wing it.

Question 2, does your plan require that it be executed by a highly skilled, veteran communicator or can it be executed by anyone who can read and follow directions? If your plan has to have a professional communicator executing it, you have a flaw in the plan. Consider this: if you, the professional communicator, are unable to manage the communications, who else can do it and do it flawlessly? Your plan must consider the real possibility that you could be out of town, unavailable or incapacitated by the actual crisis. Make sure your plan is simple enough, yet thorough enough that people from other departments can take your place if necessary.

Question 3, does you crisis communications plan tell you exactly what information to gather and what questions to ask, so you can continue to execute the plan? If you answered yes, excellent. If you answered no, you need to determine what questions needed to be asked to gather critical information for every crisis. Too many crisis communications plans that I’ve reviewed simply contain a directive that says, gather the facts about what happened. Reality is that in the heat of battle, and the throes and emotions of a crisis, you may forget to ask some critical questions if you don’t think them through and write them out on a clear, sunny day when you have clarity of thought.

Question 4, does your plan give you the names and contact information for exactly the right people you need to call to assemble a crisis management team? If you answered no, you need to add them. If you answered yes, how many names are listed? It always amazes me when I review a plan that says contact the following, then it lists the titles of 20 people without giving you a single name or phone number or e-mail address. Most plans used by universities and schools have this critical flaw. They have only titles listed with no names or contact information. To begin with, the number of people that you need to call to assemble a crisis management team should be limited to only 4 or 5 people. Some people depend upon a laminate card in their wallet or purse to give them contact information and others simply keep those numbers in their cell phone.  Both of these are good back-ups, but a true plan needs to have these in print in the plan.

Question 5, does your plan give you pre-written, pre-approved statements that you can distribute to the media and employees simultaneously within one hour or less? If you answered yes, that’s outstanding. If you answered no, you need to make it a priority to acquire such a plan immediately. Most plans contain one basic beginner template. If you’d like a free copy of one of these, you can download a free copy at www.crisiscommunicationsplans.com. Keep in mind when you download this template that it is only one page of a larger, 50 page crisis communications plan. In the plans I write, this is the template I use to communicate in the first hour of a sudden emergency or crisis, when information is still sketchy. But for the second hour of a crisis, in my plans, I write a series of more detailed templates that use a lot of bullet-pointed lists, multiple choice answers and fill-in-the-blanks. The number of templates are so extensive, that if you can identify 100 different potential crises that your organization might face, then I go so far as to write 100 different pre-approved templates. A flaw with many plans is that they still require you to write a news release or employee message from scratch with each crisis. Then whatever you write has to go through executive and legal review, slowing the communications process. Then they’ll ask you to make changes. All of this slows down the communications process. A pre-written, pre-approved template may have 75%-95% of what you need to say already written. You simply add the who, what, when, where, why and how and your statement is ready to go in record time. And again, the time to write these templates is on a clear, sunny day.

If you answered yes to all five of these questions, it sounds like you may have a perfect plan and you are ready for 2009. If you answered no to any of these, then you need to make revisions.

My guess is one of the most predictable things about 2009 is that you will face a crisis that requires serious communications. If you take steps now, at the beginning of the year to write, revise or re-write a plan that works when you need it, you’ll remove a lot of stress from your life and guarantee effective, rapid communications to your employees and the media when it is needed most.

You can find additional free resources on the following 3 sites.

www.braudcommunications.com

www.crisiscommunicationsplans.com

www.schoolcrisisplan.com

You can also call me at 985-624-9976 to ask questions.

In tomorrow’s lesson, we’ll discuss why media training and presentation training will be so critical in 2009.