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A Startup Roadmap for Good Crisis Communications

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Someone recently pointed out to me that “a crisis is the ultimate teachable moment.” Startup founders have long known this. Whether you find yourself dealing with a sudden lack of access to commercial loans, the collapse of a funding round, a management change, or even a failed product, you can help yourself work through such unpredictable — yet probably inevitable — business challenges by being prepared in advance with a response plan. One of the most important areas of your preparation, but one that is often overlooked, is your communications plan.

Maintaining clear and consistent communication with your staff, investors, customers and your partners can make all the difference to the success or failure of business in crisis, says Wendy Lane. She is founder of the public relations and marketing firm Lane PR based in Portland, Ore. Over the years Lane has helped clients, cope with all kinds of crises: from bankruptcies, to public political snafus, and in once case, a violent tragedy at a place of business. (Believe me, this sort of crisis puts the stock market turmoil into perspective, fast).

The point is, a crisis is a crisis because it creates uncertainty. You cannot predict exactly who you’re going to need help from in a pinch – employees or lenders, or both? People you thought you could rely on will surprise you in positive and negative ways. This is why keeping healthy lines of communication open with all of your constituencies is so important. Naturally you should do this as a matter of course in your daily business, but in the end, says Lane, “Good crisis communications is about transparency, transparency, transparency.”

Lane’s firm has a crisis management plan for its clients. She offered to share it. Here are some takeaways:

1. Identify risk areas of your business that could lead to an internal crisis, or be compounded by an external one. You’ve already done this with your business model, now think about how your risk area could be compounded by exposure to customers or the media. Risk areas to consider: death or serious illness of a senior executive; serious on-the-job injury; technical challenges; natural disaster; security breach.

2. Create a crisis management team and have a senior executive it. Appoint an internal communicator to support employee communication activities. Select an external communicator, to deal with outside parties like media or retail customers. (If you have one, this is your PR counsel.) Deal with investors. If you cannot take it on, appoint another senior staffer to deal with partners. Just make sure no constituency is getting communication from more than one person – consistency is important.

3. Develop a call list. Sounds like a call tree, but do it. You have no idea how much it will help you in a panic to have previously prioritized who among your senior staff, or your board, needs to be contacted, and in what order. Contacts for every member of your crisis management team should also be on the call list.

Develop your message. Do not do this in a vacuum. Use your crisis management team to help you. Any outside adviser you enlist for help (a lawyer, etc.) is now de facto part of your crisis communications team. Choose carefully.

Notify your constituencies in a concerted effort. Tell non executive-employees collectively about your crisis in order to dispel rumors and speculation. Call a staff meeting, send a broadcast e-mail or voice mail. Do not communicate piecemeal. Be candid. Deliver updates as information is available.

Assume that any information you share with employees, partners, investors, etc. could be communicated to the media or outside parties.

10 Responses to “A Startup Roadmap for Good Crisis Communications”

  1. Great topic, and thatks, Sean, for the citation from The Secrets of Consulting.

    The point, of course, is that many, if not most, crises are preventable. Good communication is the medicine that prevents most of them–or at least brings the issues to the surface before more drastic measures are required.

    Lots of things on the “crisis communication list” are actions that should be done during the normal course of business. No need to wait for bankruptcy to reveal the fact that you’ve been losing money steadily for five years. No need to wait for a heart attack to realize that your entire company is balanced on the shoulders of one very vulnerable systems programmer.

  2. Janice Brown

    In addition to developing your message, pay attention to who delivers it, particularly the people who will be on the phone or in front of customers and media.

    How you say something is as important as what you say. Clarity, calmness and authority are very important.

    Unfortunately, trendy speech affectations can undermine all three — and they are endemic in the PR business, particularly among women. These affectations include:

    Uptalking: that annoying habit of lifting one’s voice at the end of every sentence. This habit may make the speaker sound tentative and confused. Worse, it makes it hard for the reporter or customer to discern a statement from a question — the last thing you want in a crisis.

    Gravelly: that annoying habit of speaking in a low, barely intelligible growl, which typically trails off at the end of a sentence such that the last words are completely lost. This affectation sppears to have been copied from Valley-Girl types on television, or to have been misconstrued as a way for women to speak in a more authoritative manner. People can’t understand the speaker, or they get tired of trying to understand the speaker and zone out.

    Hissy: that annoying habit of speaking like one has an inane smile pasted on one’s face at all times (see: Britney Spears). This gives all “S” words a long, wet, sibilant hiss, which is confusing to the listener in addition to being grating on the ears. Facial expressions affect the tone of one’s speech; thus, situation-appropriate facial expressions are as important when speaking on the telephone as they are when speaking in person. Spokespersons should practice their expressions in concert with practicing message delivery.

    Likish: that annoying habit of inserting the parenthetical “like” throughout one’s speech. And yes, corporate spokespersons apparently speak likish — either that, or reporters are inserting the word “like” into quotes (not likely, no pun intended). Likish undermines authority and clarity.

    Equivospeak: that annoying habit of inserting “kind of” or “sort of” as a mindless modifier of just about anything. Unless one is intentionally trying to obfuscate, equivospeak is a killer in a crisis: no one wants to hear that you “sort of” resolved the chemical spill. And yes, corporate spokespeople speak equivospeak — either that, or reporters are inserting “sort of” into quotes.

    In short: chose your spokespersons carefully, because *how* they say things are as important as *what* they say.

  3. Use a social media monitoring tool like SM2 (disclosure: our product) to monitor what people are saying about your brands and reputation across social media. Make sure you do not ignore the low authority sources- they can create a crisis almost as fast as the more popular ones because social media spreads news exponentially. Use sentiment analysis tools to identify potential negative conversations.
    Before a crisis breaks in traditional media it will break in social media- that’s a given in this new world.

  4. Ten lessons for executives to pay close attention to from Campaign ’08:

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