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The Best Crisis Communications Starts with Preparation

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The recent nationally televised error at the 89th Academy Awards was a lesson in crisis communications. There are many takeaways that unfolded from the huge gaffe when Warren Beatty, a presenter of the award, was given the wrong envelope.

Since probably you either were watching the event unfold or have read about it afterwards, it isn’t necessary to recap the event but rather discuss what it teaches us in terms of lessons in crisis communications.

An article in the February 25, New York Times mentioned that the company responsible for tallying and distributing the award envelopes PwC ((Price Waterhouse Coopers) was quick to accept responsibility for the mistake.

Certainly, a major brand crisis can’t be swept under the (red) carpet but quickly acknowledging responsibility is an important step. Rather than pointing fingers and placing blame, taking responsibility shows where the buck stops. Regardless, of the many factors that may have led to the error, this offers the opportunity to get to the bottom of the situation.

As PwC executives searched for the answers, there were also wheels put in motion to alert all employees the next day after the debacle. I particularly liked the comment by Tim Ryan, the US chairman of PwC, “bad news doesn’t age well,” in explaining the company will get to bottom of the error and if they made the mistake they would own up to it. Plus in today’s instant information world, news travels fast, especially bad news! Certainly the swiftness of the televised error as millions watched is different than a crisis that could occur with a hospital or facility but regardless, it illustrates how quickly the media responds.

Being prepared for a crisis is something all of us need to practice.   While no one can predict what crisis could occur, everyone should be aware of the standard practices that will be put into place without having to scramble.

A crisis plan should be written for your specific organization or company. Then it should be reviewed regularly since people change and specifics of a plan can be easily forgotten.

There are also operational issues involved in a crisis plan and differing procedures for varying crisis situations. Every crisis plan needs to involve what I call the “4 P’s”; planning, preparation, procedures and practice. A good starting place is asking your team the question “what will you do if” and brainstorming various crisis situations that could occur, the likelihood of a crisis occurring and what would the potential devastation be from various crisis situations.

Having a crisis plan which includes the communication aspects should also deal with the various audiences and how they are communicated to and by whom including how media is handled. It should establish who will speak on behalf of the organization. The media will look to a specific person who has the authority to comment and everyone should know who this individual is and how they can be reached. A communications plan should guard employee’s privacy. Working with a human resource department is worthwhile to know what laws are in place to protect these people.  

In good times, there should be media policies and procedures in place for media inquiries. Who speaks to the media if they call? When employees are familiar with these policies in good times, they are more natural to utilize them when there is a crisis.  

In the case of the Oscar’s accountants’ crisis, the reputation of PwC is one of being a firm with integrity, accuracy and confidentiality. The two employees onsite will never handle the awards again but it has yet to be made public if PwC will keep the Academy Awards’ contract.

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