Ayme Zemnke, Beehive
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How to Plan for and Navigate a Crisis with Purpose and Clarity

By Ayme Zemke
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Ayme Zemnke, Beehive

Being prepared significantly improves the odds that an organization will successfully manage and mitigate risk, sustain trust and loyalty, and protect and preserve their brand.

The number of medical device recalls is rising. According to the FDA, there were nearly 50 medical device recalls last year, compared to just 32 in each of the previous two years. Whether your organization is managing a recall, involved in litigation or facing another critical issue, a crisis situation can occur at a moment’s notice, quickly putting at risk your business and relationships with patients, doctors, employees and shareholders. How a company responds to a crisis situation can have a long-lasting business impact. Being prepared significantly improves the odds that an organization will successfully manage and mitigate risk, sustain trust and loyalty, and protect and preserve their brand.

Understand Your Organization and the Marketplace

When thinking about your organization’s crisis response, it is important to take a step back to better understand the current business marketplace. The world has changed, and people expect more from businesses than ever before. They expect them to do better and to stand for something more than profits. There is an expectation of transparency, which is the gateway to trust. And trust is everything.

To gain that trust, organizations need to know who they are and what they stand for—and then act accordingly. This clarity of organizational purpose and values provides important guidance and sets a strong foundation to support any future response needs or actions. For example, if human safety is a priority for a medical device business, its words and actions must reflect that in order to build and sustain trust. Ultimately, the best crisis response is to prevent it in the first place by acting with integrity and accountability.

It’s also important for businesses to know their stakeholders well so they can meet them where they’re at, especially if a crisis or concerns arises. When stakeholder relationships are proactively managed and nurtured, they allow the company to start from a place of trust and strength should a challenge occur. That will go a long way towards protecting the brand, sustaining relationships and supporting business continuity.

Prepare and Plan

It’s not a matter of if—but when—a crisis will impact an organization. The businesses that prepare and plan ahead are the ones best positioned to respond quickly, minimize the damage or risk, and effectively move forward from the situation. It essential for companies to have both a business continuity and crisis communication plan established and regularly refreshed.

When designing a plan, start by identifying the key risks and high-potential crisis scenarios for your business. Explore each situation to clearly define the events or triggers that would activate a crisis response for your organization. These could include recalls, natural disasters, workplace incidents or a data breach. The severity of the crisis will determine the correct level of response and in an actual crisis, each situation should be assessed for its overall impact on the company.

Build a step-by-step plan that guides the team through both the immediate response as well as the long-term planning for how to use communication to manage the crisis. The plan should include a designated leader and core, cross-functional team with responsibility for initial response, communication strategy, and involvement of other team members and third-party consultants as needed. The plan and team should be closely aligned with the business’s continuity and compliance groups as well to ensure an integrated response strategy that will protect all aspects of the company.

A crisis moves at the speed today’s technology allows—and that’s real time. A crisis waits for no company, which is why being prepared is so critical. The difficult reality is that the team will never have all the information in a crisis they would like to have. They will need to do the best they can to quickly assess the situation, be thoughtful and choose a response strategy. This becomes easier and less stressful when there is a comprehensive communication plan in place that includes:

  • A dedicated response team with clear roles and responsibilities for crisis management and communication
  • A complete internal and external stakeholder inventory, including preferred communication channels for each audience
  • Designated, trained spokespeople and identified external resources (e.g., legal, public relations)
  • Prepared, template materials that can be easily customized and distributed using previously determined communication channels
  • A monitoring and listening process to better understand the issue, marketplace conversations and how best to meet stakeholders where they’re at

Once an established crisis plan is in place, it is critical to keep it refreshed and active through regular drills and practice opportunities. Stage crisis scenario trainings to assess the effectiveness of the plan in various situations. This will ensure the plan remains current and the team is prepared and ready to effectively respond to an unexpected issue.

Communicate Consistently and Authentically

Businesses that respond with transparency, truth and timeliness are the ones most likely to gain trust and successfully emerge from a crisis situation. In some cases, a well-managed crisis response can actually generate a higher level of trust. To that end, companies should be open and authentic when communicating. If a mistake has been made, acknowledge it and explain how it will be corrected, including changes being made to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Take time to listen first to avoid a tone-deaf response. Understand your stakeholders, demonstrate empathy and understanding, and address their concerns and questions. Showing you care is never the wrong move—unless it is insincere.

One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is staying silent or going into hiding. These actions will immediately lead to suspicion and loss of trust. Instead, move quickly to frame the issue and put the situation in perspective. Helping people understand the issue and explaining the actions the company is taking to move forward will minimize speculation and confusion. Being willing to engage in a crisis situation is critical.

Keep the information you communicate simple and factual. Eliminate speculation, opinions or assumptions from your messages. This will ensure everyone trusts what is being shared. And while business must continue even during a crisis, it is critically important to be thoughtful and sensitive about any external brand marketing or messages that could be inadvertently perceived as misguided or opportunistic.

Consistent communication is important, especially if the crisis becomes a sustained situation. Provide regular, proactive updates—even if there’s nothing significantly new to share. In the absence of information, people will make assumptions that may be based on misinformation or grounded in fear, which can quickly lead to larger issues.

Use a multi-channel approach to engage stakeholders in a variety of ways, online, offline and in-person. And be sure put feedback loops in place, like text and phone hotlines and email addresses, that are consistently monitored and managed. Leaders need to know what is on the hearts and minds of stakeholders in real time during a crisis to effectively guide the response.

Lastly, businesses should always ground response plans in the company’s purpose, mission and values. Be clear before a crisis strikes about what the organization stands for and what it’s willing to stand up for. This provides invaluable guidance when making decisions about when to respond, what to say and which actions should be taken. It also ensures your company is meeting the rising expectations of its customers and the marketplace to make meaningful connections that will differentiate your brand and support it in times of crisis.

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