7 Tips to Prevent a Crisis from Becoming a Catastrophe

Leading PR & communications expert Ann Barlow has seen her fair share of crises in her career working with B2B and B2C companies across several industries. Whether it’s a fraud situation, a large-scale accident, or a major layoff, the importance of communications and legal during an emergency is evident. However, the significance of HR should not be underestimated.

“First, and foremost, HR has a critical role to play because of its effect on people,“ says the communications veteran who serves as the Partner & President, West Coast Managing Director of Peppercomm. Take for example the cringe-inducing events of the Carrier Corporation crisis from last year. A video went viral showing employees of the Indianapolis-based company reacting to news of plans to relocate it to Mexico, effectively laying off thousands.

What happened to Carrier is a nightmare, both from an employer and employee perspective, yet there are lessons that can be learned. In an exclusive with Slate Advisers, Ann shared seven tips to help every HR professional prevent a crisis from becoming a catastrophe.

1. Prioritize prevention

Ann’s golden rule when it comes to crisis management is simple: “The best crisis management is preventing a crisis.”

Although easier said than done, it’s essential for organizations and their leaders to do everything possible to avoid putting their reputation at risk. One of the best ways to do this is by thinking about long-term goals over short-term gains. Ann suggests routinely asking critical questions like “How are we going to be good to our community? What is the impact of this decision? How are we going to manage this?’ This can help companies focus on what really matters.

2. Make a plan that makes sense for YOU

While no organization eagerly anticipates a crisis, it’s crucial to have a plan in place rather than get caught by surprise if one occurs.

“A plan that is well thought out is based on two things: Decisions you are going to make and how you are going to make those decisions,” Ann says.

A plan should indicate who are the key decision-makers and their specific tasks, include resources that are needed such as the distribution list for email, and outline processes like the protocol for approvals.  

Furthermore, this plan needs to be periodically updated to reflect changes in the organization. For example, email may have been the primary way to quickly contact employees in 2007, but an internal instant-messaging platform may be the best tool for rapid communication in 2017.

3. Practice, practice, practice - put your plan in action

Beyond having an up-to-date plan, Ann stresses the need to test it out through simulations. “The other thing that can happen is that companies have a plan that’s written well and communicated effectively within the organization but they’ve never tested it out.”  

Ann encourages companies to run fire drills that mimic real-life situations. Whether it’s figuring out how to support employees during a layoff or how to regain the public’s trust after employee fraud is discovered (as in the recent case of Wells Fargo), one of the most important aspects of the scenario is that it feels real. It’s imperative that everyone involved, from entry-level employees to executives, treat the simulation as if it was an actual crisis. That means investing the same amount of time, resources, and energy as you would if the crisis was unfolding in real-time. By doing so, potential weaknesses in a crisis plan can be identified and strengthened.

By taking the time to practice, an organization can implement a solution before there’s even a problem, such as asking legal to create pre-approved templates that the communications department can use for writing content shared externally.

4. Tell YOUR story first

Between social media and the 24-hour news cycle, information spreads faster than ever –– whether or not it’s accurate. “Companies need to act with speed. You just can’t imagine just how important speed is. People are blindsided by it,” Ann tells Slate Advisers.

The desire to take time to develop a response is understandable, yet companies risk falsehoods becoming facts by waiting. “Companies make mistakes, but you want to be the owner of your information.”  Or, as Ann warns, outsiders will speak on your behalf.

HR professionals know how easily rumors can spread among employees, particularly in times of instability. Rumors based in fear can negatively impact productivity and employee morale. However, quick updates from a compassionate source can squash doubts and reassure employees.

Anything is better than silence, Ann says, even if “the best you can do is to say it’s not a great situation.”

5. Do the right thing

Just as important as acting quickly is acting intentionally. Ann advises key decision-makers to set a goal in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, and to be honest about the short and long-term impact of that goal. “If the number one goal is to preserve the reputation of the organization, then a company might be willing to take a hit on the stock price in the short-term, and over the long-term, your customers and employees will appreciate you more.”

One goal Ann wholeheartedly recommends is for companies to be a “good corporate citizen.”

“It’s really important that companies should be the best corporate citizen they can be.” She adds, “If you come from that perspective then you’re going to make decisions that are compassionate and helpful.”

6. Be transparent - honesty is the best policy

In the golden age of social media, “nothing is sacred.”

As the Carrier crisis exemplified, anything said privately can be shared publicly. “Assume whatever you do is going to see the light of day,” cautions Ann.

With this in mind, HR should be involved in the process of deciding what is communicated, to whom, and how during a crisis. Not only does HR have vital information that can influence the decisions of the leadership team, it also serves as the voice of the employees, advocating on their behalf. Plus, the more HR understands the rationale behind big changes, the better it can inform employees and answer questions.

Although it seems counterintuitive, a crisis also requires increased communication with internal and external stakeholders, almost to the point of oversharing. “Nothing is worse than coming off as if you’re is hiding something.” Ann counsels companies to be transparent, which is also a great way to repair any damaged trust.

Ann’s advice: “Be respectful. You have to be as open, as transparent, and as humble as possible.”   

7. Survive and thrive

Eventually, all crises come to an end.

“There is a life of a crisis. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Ann says.  

Although it’s tempting forget the past, a company’s goal should not be to simply survive the storm, but to thrive because of it. One of the best ways to ensure this outcome is to reflect on what led to the crisis, what did and did not work in response to it, and what changes need to be made moving forward.

”What are the things that create a flurry and what are the things ahead?” Ann suggests setting up extensive monitoring to help follow the life cycle of a crisis as well as to learn the warning signs that one is coming. “You’re monitoring what’s happening inside your organization. You’re monitoring all of your social channels. You’re monitoring the media so that you can be really clear on how people are reacting and you’re not blindsided by anything.”

If done well, an organization can learn how to prevent a similar situation in the future.

Slate Advisers is a career transition services firm that takes a more innovative approach to outplacement, accelerating employee transitions and delivering measurable results. We work with companies amid team reorgs, acquisition integrations, and other employee exits. And, by supporting smoother departures, we help protect the company's employment brand and morale. Our clients range from venture-backed startups to the Fortune 1000.



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