If your organization has a crisis communication plan, your team has probably thought long and hard about what you’ll say, to whom, and through what channels. If your organization, like nearly half of those surveyed by Nasdaq, has no crisis communication playbook, these are key questions to explore.[i] But whether your crisis team is revising the plan or building one now, remember that communication is not just about what you say. It’s also about listening to stakeholders.
During a crisis, people want to know how events affect them. They need to know that you understand them and are working on resolving their concerns. The best way to know what matters to your stakeholders is to listen. And, failure to listen can make you and your organization appear both unhelpful and unempathetic. We all got a stark reminder of that fact when, after the Deepwater Horizon crisis, now-former BP CEO Tony Hayward said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Trying to listen well during a crisis is nearly impossible if you haven’t laid the right foundation beforehand. What you learn during a crisis can also help your organization better handle the next one. So, listening should be a key part of a crisis communication plan. Here’s how to incorporate it effectively.
Before a crisis
Now is the time to identify your stakeholders and where they go to talk about you and your competitors. The ideal place to start is your own social media channels, which you’re probably already monitoring. But are you connecting those findings with the crisis communications team? Most organizations don’t and, as a result, are likely missing important information that could be critical during a crisis. The crisis communications team also needs to be familiar with the channels and key features that would be useful during an extreme event, so they can take ownership at the appropriate time.
Before a crisis strikes, look beyond your own social channels, too. Understand what traditional media outlets say about your organization and what their audiences say in response. That way, you can see more clearly how stakeholders perceive your business and what they’ll specifically want to know during potential crises. And don’t forget to look offline. Trade and industry associations are valuable places to seek information about your stakeholders.
During a crisis
Actively monitoring social media is, of course, essential. The right sentiment analysis tools determine the deeper context of posts to give insight into what conversations truly mean. Just be sure the crisis communications team has access to the analysis and input on responses, so your organization is listening with the right perspective.
When your organization is in the middle of a crisis, you’ll inevitably hear from journalists, and you’ll need to answer their questions. But don’t forget to think about the questions they’re asking. What can you glean about what’s going on in your stakeholders’ minds? By listening to, watching, and reading traditional media coverage, the crisis communications team may find valuable clues about what’s working and what isn’t.
And don’t underestimate the power of meeting with your stakeholders in person, be they customers, local community members, or employees. Non-verbal cues tell you how someone feels in a way that words alone can’t always convey.
Throughout this process, make it clear to your stakeholders that you’re listening. You can, for example, incorporate reminders of what you’re learning from your stakeholders into public statements, and specify the actions you’re taking in response.
After a crisis
Keep listening through all the channels mentioned above. Take the time to analyze your efforts. What specific listening activities resonated well with stakeholders? Which need improvement? Which didn’t help and need to be eliminated altogether? Revise your crisis communications plan based on what you find. In addition, listen carefully for clues that could help you identify slow-burning issues that have the potential to escalate. That way, you have a better chance of averting the next crisis.
In the midst of a crisis, many organizations are focused on themselves and their response. That’s important, but it’s not enough. Listening carefully and using that information wisely demonstrates that you care about your stakeholders, which helps protect your reputation. But if you aren’t prepared to listen, and planning for it now, a crisis could have a far bigger impact on your business than it needs to have.
[i] Seth Arenstein, PRNews: PR News/Nasdaq Survey: Nearly Half of Organizations Shun Crisis Preparation. Available at http://www.prnewsonline.com/pr-newsnasdaq-survey-nearly-half-organizations-shun-crisis-preparation/
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