Is Your Organization’s Crisis Plan Ready for a Real Crisis
In this episode of On Record PR, we flip the script and go on record with host Gina Rubel to discuss how to prepare your organization for a real crisis.
This interview was recorded on Friday, March 20, 2020, in the nation’s first week on coronavirus lock-down and second week of the pandemic in the United States. We were working from home, meeting via Zoom, and trying to navigate the new normal.
How often do companies have some kind of crisis plan?
I think after coronavirus, everyone’s going to have a crisis plan. However, I’d say it depends on the size of the firm and the industry they’re in and what they’ve experienced in the past. For example, large and mid-size law firms often, almost always, have a crisis plan these days. I very rarely come across one that doesn’t. Now, I can tell you, I don’t know anyone who had a crisis plan for a pandemic. For example, we work with a law firm, McGlinchey Stafford, in Louisiana, and they have a number of offices throughout the South. They were very well prepared to handle this because they dealt with Hurricane Katrina. To give you an idea of what I said earlier, it depends on what they’ve dealt with. Businesses that have dealt with hurricanes, and natural disasters, and floods, and many on the west coast, in fact, who have the fear of earthquakes, they usually have some sort of plan. Small businesses, on the other hand – and I’m sure we have listeners that fall into both large and small businesses – often do not. And I cannot begin to tell you, even now, as we sit here in March of 2020, how much we’ve all had to face our own mortality and think about, “What’s our succession plan look like? What happens if something happens to me?” And meanwhile, here’s the Furia Rubel team. All we’re doing is handling everyone else’s crises, right? We represent law firms. We represent senior living facilities. We represent behavioral healthcare institutions, banks, so there’s not an industry that’s not being affected right now by what’s happening. If a listener is listening to this three months or three years from now, we will have learned so much. When we get through into this conversation, another thing to think about is: What are you taking away from the pandemic to learn for the future? And if you don’t have a plan, to create one.
How has the #MeToo crisis influenced companies that went through it, and how companies were prepared or not prepared for it?
Well, what’s interesting is people, business owners and executives often think, “It’s never going to happen to me.” Prior to coronavirus, the two main incidents that were happening, that still happen, are #MeToo allegations and cyber breaches. We’re also finding that now during the pandemic, and I suspect this will always be an issue, cybercrimes and cybersecurity issues will always be part of the new reality — the digital reality, the digital world that we live in. So, when we’re talking about crisis plans, we look at all the types of incidents, the types of scenarios, and we break them down because every scenario is different. Workplace violence is different than a #MeToo issue and how you handle it is different because there’s different protocols. A crisis plan needs to address: Who’s on your crisis response team and what are the protocols that you follow? And, they really do tend to be very different. What’s interesting, John, we talked a little bit already about how coronavirus is changing. How we’re looking at things. After 9/11, every mall and every major public location was changing their incident response plans, their crisis response plans. They were doing bomb threat testing. We did this for a client, I’m guessing it was 2012. No, I’m sorry. 9/11 was in 2001, so it must’ve been a few years after. And we did a bomb drill, a bomb scare drill, and we were working with the local police and with the FBI, and we did this whole scenario. And by doing this scenario, we revised the crisis plan. That was the whole point.
Vulnerabilities are the weaknesses in your current plan, right?
Exactly. What we’re learning now is we all have a lot of vulnerabilities in a pandemic. The last one was 104 years ago, not in our lifetimes. Very few people that are alive today remember, so it’s changing the way we’re looking at how we plan for the future, what our crisis teams look like, how we implement work from home.
People didn’t anticipate parents who are forced to be home and are limited from working. One, they can’t go into their workplace and two, they have to care for their children, and they have to educate their children. So that’s a major one that’s really affecting the workplace as well. It’s kind of the nature of this one, that people didn’t anticipate.
How do you have a factory worker work from home? There’s so many people who can’t. There’s so much we still have to learn, and I do believe that there will be a lot of positives that come as a result of this rather difficult period that we’re going through now. We will learn new things, and the yin and yang symbol that we all loved when we were teenagers and on our roller skates and skateboards, it actually means opportunity and crisis. And there’s so much opportunity in a crisis to learn, to lead, to educate, to grow. I’m looking at this time both as a time to be resourceful and responsive. That’s what crisis planning is about by the way. It’s about being prepared.
You wouldn’t put a person, who is training to be a firefighter, in a building that’s up in flames the very first day on the job. Yet in this case, in the pandemic incidents instance – you can tell I’m a little tired from crisis planning and management – we are putting firefighters in the fires who haven’t ever been trained. And that’s really what’s happening for all of us as business owners saying, “Okay, well what do I do? How do I do this? What about this?” And one of the really cool things that’s happening though, is the sense of community and how things like podcasts, which you’re an expert in—podcasting–that’s what you teach people, and you’ve certainly helped many businesses including my own, in really teaching people how to get the message out there in a different way.
If you lose your regular communication channels that you’re used to communicating with your clients or your customers with, what do you do? What’s the backup? Or, if an individual, like the person who usually handles communications is out of commission for whatever reason, what do you do?
Absolutely. That’s all those contingency plans, right? And even the courts are looking at how do we conduct business virtually, and many of them have over the years. We’ve moved to a lot of electronic arrangements in the criminal courts and things like that. In the civil courts, it was never an issue. But they’re seeing now that it is, and if this goes on longer than we anticipate, they’re going to have to move to some sort of electronic platform that’s going to allow them to keep systems going, some of the most vital systems. It is fascinating and we have so many opportunities to lead and grow. But in crisis planning, to go back to that, you need to know who’s on your team, and you need to cut the red tape. You can’t have 15 people on a crisis response team. You need to have someone there who’s available and able to make decisions quickly. You need to know who your spokesperson is, who’s going to be making decisions on behalf of the company, what they can and can’t say, and have to have a GC involved. The reason for that, frankly, is that you don’t know what could end up in litigation later. There’s things that we need to do that are vital to planning, so that you’re agile, you’re quick, responsive.
And that’s one of the reasons I love what I do because as both a trained a lawyer, former litigator, and a PR crisis manager, I’m able to do that, but I still rely on general counsel to ask. I haven’t practiced in a courtroom in 20 years, and I’m very proud of that by the way. The other thing is the preservation of evidence. Let’s say for example, it’s a #MeToo matter and HR is involved, and who you need to know who can speak on behalf of the matter, who may have been aware of the matter.
There’s a preservation of evidence issue, so having general counsel involved is very important. Even just asking from the outset, maybe it’s not a big deal. Maybe there was something negative posted on Twitter about your company as a result of some attorney’s preference in who they’re going to vote for in the presidential election. And then, they get attacked by the opposition. And then, the firm starts getting attacked. Now you’re in this crisis. It’s probably never going to lead to litigation. But there could be issues that you need to resolve. By the way, that’s a real scenario.
Another crisis you mentioned about five or six months ago, is the NBA – one of the coaches or a general manager posted something that was favorable to Hong Kong independence, which angered China. And then the NBA got into hot water regarding how they would treat that individual and how the team would treat it. There were issues of free speech and it mushroomed. It’s one of those things, as you said, it pops up, crops up on Twitter. A bunch of people pay attention to it, and then all of a sudden, you’re embroiled in a large crisis.
It takes one influencer to get involved in a conversation where something goes from nothing to full blown crisis. If our clients see this, how are we communicating with them? Are we going to be open about this happening now and headed off at the pass? Think about if a company gets sued, and the litigant, the plaintiff for example, leaks the complaint to the media. I’ve dealt with that many, many times. So, all of these things in a crisis plan need to be addressed. Right now, because we’re so embroiled in a pandemic, that’s what’s most important today. If things go back to normal, and I dare say when things go back to normal, it’s going to be back to #MeToo and cybersecurity. Depending on when the listener is listening to this podcast, those are things to think about. Take the pulse of what’s happening in the world, and if you’re starting your plan there, start your scenarios there as well.
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