Preparing for your next crisis

Can your plan handle the bizarre?

Last winter Dries, the Drupal Association, and the whole Drupal community, stumbled when concerns about a leading contributor’s potentially exploitive relationship got caught up in discussions of Gorean subculture and related sexual behaviors (warning researching this topic will quickly lead you to NSFW information). The intriguing details drew in an ever-expanding audience but were actually irrelevant the main concerns and the secondary ones that followed. The DA lost control of the message and the story and the entire community suffered as a consequence. Last spring and summer I was asked to step in to help them regain control of the message and start to resolve the crisis. It wasn’t the first time I was part of a crisis response with unusual details, and likely won’t be the last.

The first time I saw an organization respond to a threat to their reputation was my senior year at Hamilton College when I was intern in the Communications and Development Department. The morning of February 5th, 2001 the administrative assistant who spent every Monday morning scanning major publications for references to the college and its professors (this is before you could use Google Alerts and other tools for a similar purpose) suddenly jumped up from her desk and ran into her boss’s office. A few moments later they both sprinted down the hall to the Vice President’s office. She had found an article in the New York Times Magazine titled The Cloning Mission; A Desire to Duplicate featuring then-chemistry professor Brigitte Boisselier who – unbeknownst to the college – was moonlighting as the research director for Clonaid trying to develop human cloning technology as part of her leadership of Raëlianism.

Yup, the first time I had a front row seat to a crisis was a college learning from the New York Times that they had a professor doing secret human cloning research for a group that believes aliens created humanity.

Within a hour they had a preliminary message prepared for any alumni who called – and they were calling – and got it to all alumni class presidents to share with any concerned classmates. By noon they had held meetings with all the needed decision makers including the college president, the chemistry department chair, the deans, and the VP of Communications to form a plan of action. By early afternoon that turned into a more formal statement that was recirculated to the class presidents and anyone else expressing concern to the school. Over the course of the semester, and the two years that followed (she continued to make world news after she left the college), they responded to repeated media inquires – I was one of several interns in a mock audience for b-roll footage of a CBC piece on the topic – and even got her to engage in a public debate with an ethicist from the Philosophy department (which went poorly for her). In the end the concerned alumni were pleased with the college’s handling of the matter and the school’s reputation remained intact.

Eventually every organization will face a crisis that requires a public response. Depending on the nature of your organization you may already have a plan that handles the obvious situations: like schools preparing for threats to their students or political campaigns preparing for sexual harassment claims (at least they all should be prepared regardless of what their candidate tells them). But in my experience most of the time the crisis that actually emerges isn’t what you expected and includes strange details that easily distract everyone from the main issue.

Hamilton did not have a plan titled: “What happens if one of our professors is caught leading human cloning research for an alien cult.”  What they had was a general plan for “What happens when it appears someone is going to make us look bad” that was quickly escalated to “what happens when it really is bad.” They knew who they needed to get into a meeting, and that allowed timely decision making. The communications team then had a basis to work quickly so they could get back in control of the story. The plan they had allowed them to brush aside the unimportant details – the involvement of Raëlianism was fun to talk about but didn’t change anything about the response – so they could focus on important details.

Often when faced with these kinds of strange details surrounding a crisis the people who should be leading the response get distracted and start talking about those details. When it gets really weird they really want to say “is this not my fault and not my problem” and ignore it. It doesn’t matter why just that it is your problem. Everyone will want to focus on the salacious details, but you have to focus on the important details and lead your audience to supporting your response.

These are my tips for how to plan for a crisis and building a response that allows you to stay focused:

  1. Know when to initiate your response. Develop a list of people and metrics to use to initiate a crisis response. It should include both some clear markers – e.g. a threat of violence against staff or constituents – and some fuzzier signs – e.g. anytime the ED/CEO or board chair says there is a crisis.
  2. Know who needs to be involved and how to find them. Part of what allowed Hamilton to move quickly was they knew exactly who needed to be involved in the process. Likewise you should determine which staff, board members, volunteers, consultants, etc, need to be in the loop and how you reach them quickly. And know who gets cut out when – if your board chair is on a cruise and can’t be reached until next Tuesday who do you call instead? If your director of communications is the problem you’re probably better off not having them planning the response.
  3. Prepare different types of response. You may want to monitor the situation while saying nothing; you may want to target different messages to specific audiences (your board may get a different message than your donors); you may want to try to use press contacts or avoid them. You should think about how and when to use all your communications channels as part of your response.
  4. Have metrics for testing your plan before following it. In a time of stress it can be easy to overlook important details in your response. While planning write up a checklist to run through to make sure you remembered everything that’s important. It should at least include a reminder to think about everyone’s physical safety and your legal risk (in that order). It should also probably include contacts with important constituent groups (like Hamilton’s alumni class presidents) and any internal audiences so staff and volunteers aren’t surprised by public statements.
  5. Be prepared to share aggressively. Often organizations appear to be hiding information when they share it slowly, or when they say “this is all we can release” and then are pressured into releasing more. With any given statement release everything you can – sometimes with supporting materials if you need to – and then stop.
  6. Be prepared to shut up. This correlates with the previous tip. Sometimes part of a good response will be to be quiet. Usually this will be right before and after a major statement. It gives people a chance to process your response and avoids the sense that you are leaking information in dribs and drabs.
  7. Don’t over plan. Your next crisis will not look like what you planned for, so be prepared to change course from your very first move. If you lock in to many details you will likely make your situation worse by sounding tone-def.

When you have created your draft plan you should practice using it. Some of that practice should be very practical: what do you do when a man in leadership is accused of sexual harassment or abuse? Some of it should be like the CDC and FEMA zombie drills; even if you don’t use zombies use a crisis that you think couldn’t possibly happen – if you hear someone in the office say “good thing that can’t happen here” use it as your scenario. The first makes sure you are prepared for the kinds of things that are most likely to actually happen. The second makes sure you are prepared to think outside the box and handle a messy situation to which you thought you were immune. Your organization might not do any medical research at all, but what would happen if you discovered a board member was marrying the next director of Clonaid (including aliens is almost as fun as including zombies)? What would you tell your major donors?

A good crisis response comes from being prepared for the unexpected. If your plan is flexible enough to handle the utterly expected and adapt to a staff member cloning alien zombies, you can probably handle whatever actually comes your way.