How a Fire Drill Can Prepare You for a PR Crisis

Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it can certainly make you more proficient. This might not be a crisis communications adage, but it should be, especially for nonprofit organizations and socially responsible companies that need to be prepared in the event of the unexpected.

[tweet bird=yes] If anything were ever true in the world of public relations and media relations, it is this: No two days are ever the same. [/tweet] Sure, we practitioners may go through routine tasks on any given day, but even within those duties, we are doing so for different clients, various projects and assorted objectives.

The same is true in a PR crisis – we may think the most effective strategies are “old hat,” and we may even believe we have them “down pat.” But there is no such thing as being too ready when an incident happens. Though best practices apply, the players, issues, threats and thorny considerations may be as dynamic as the factors that media, public relations and communications professionals face each day.

That’s why staying on our toes is essential. And completing “fire drills” is one practical way to stay ready around the clock.

Who Does What?

Encountering role confusion is one of the last things an organization needs when an internal incident has turned into breaking news. When reporters are calling and producers are emailing, teams should know precisely which members are responsible for drafting responses, vetting approvals and establishing outreach with third parties. This is how a fire drill, or practice run, of a potential scenario can help organizational teams clarify and, if necessary, reassign and cross-train roles.

Moreover, role clarity helps those beyond the communications and PR department, too. Other business stakeholders include leadership – that is, the executive director or CEO, and other upper management team members. While these faces of the organization may not be mired in the tactical PR work of scrubbing media lists and updating social media posts, they do need to be just as informed as you are about the situation, the plan of action, ongoing updates and post-incident strategies.

Determine which PR team members will communicate with internal and external audiences, how often and through what means. Ensure that every contributor on the department’s roster has a clear set of duties and tasks for which he or she is responsible in the event of an emergency.

Where’s Our Stuff?

Organization matters. A sense of structure and orderliness makes our jobs as PR practitioners easier, especially considering the many moving parts managed daily. That discipline carries through in our effectiveness during a crisis.

A test run of a communications crisis will put your team’s tidiness to the test. When a surprise strikes, and the need to access resources and tools is immediate, knowing where the most recent, approved assets are is critical. When the six o’clock evening news is calling on deadline, or when one of your organization’s satellite locations is in the midst of a disaster, the last thing your team needs to do is waste time fumbling around looking for misplaced items and poorly handled files.

Your organization’s internal media relations and public relations toolkit should be customized and comprehensive. At a minimum, it may include:

  • Template press release or media statement documents
  • Logos for both digital and print needs
  • Log-in credentials for all company social media accounts
  • Headshots of executive leadership and senior management
  • Emergency contact numbers for website vendors or other vital third-party partners

How Bad Could It Really Get?

The next upcoming event. The quarterly report. The latest leadership announcement. Though work days in PR vary, they are often filled with scheduled and planned-for tasks like these.

Fire drills also enable internal PR professionals to consider what they often lack the time to do during an average day – think about just how catastrophic of a high-stakes situation they could one day encounter. While the possibilities are sometimes organization-, industry- and individual-specific, PR teams should embrace a nimble groupthink that acknowledges unpredictability.

Together, members of the organizational PR team can develop ideas and generate a list of both likely – and unlikely – issues they may eventually encounter. From this, the group can determine the scenarios for which they want to practice, perhaps creating a schedule that will enable them to address others on the list on a rolling basis.

Potential crises worth preparing for may include:

  • Allegations of unethical or illegal behavior by leadership or staff member
  • Sudden resignation or position abandonment by a leadership team member or executive
  • Natural weather-related disaster affecting organizational headquarters, satellite offices or those served
  • Misallocation of funds by employees or friends of the organization
  • Workplace violence
  • Untimely death of leadership team member or executive

A crisis practice run can poise organizational leadership, PR and other teams for worst-case scenarios. After all, when an incident occurs, that happening is not isolated; while the communications and public relations teams must be readied and responsive, they, too, must align themselves with other internal stakeholders and decision-makers. Strategies must be role- and department-specific, but they also should be integrated into an approach that fosters seamless, connected issues management. Other functional groups, too, must develop strategies that support and correspond with what the PR team does.

Which organizational crises are the most likely to happen within the nonprofit world? What about tech startups and major corporations – are there significant differences in what constitutes a “disaster” or “crisis” depending on the industry or audience? Share with us on The Wakeman Agency Facebook page.

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