The coronavirus may have been the most global and universal crisis business leaders have had to face in their careers, but it’s far from being the only one. Cyber attacks, the #MeToo movement, and account fraud scandals have all forced businesses — both big and small — into crisis management mode. So how can a business leader prepare for the unexpected crisis that is sure to come at some point in every executive’s career?
“Crisis management planning should always start with more questions than answers,” says Justin Chase, president CEO of the Crisis Response Network. “This process should never be considered a regulatory “check of the box”. If leaders want realistic and usable plans, they must commit to radical candor.”
Az business asked some of Arizona’s greatest thought leaders to offer guidance on crisis management. The leaders offering their thoughts are:
• Mike Brown, Arizona region president, WaFd Bank Arizona.
• Justin Chase, president CEO; and Chris Anderson, emergency management program administrator, Crisis Response Network.
• Abbie S. Fink, vice president and general manager, HMA Public Relations.
• Dr. Lorrie Henderson, CEO, Jewish Family & Children’s Service.
• Leonardo Loo, Phoenix office managing partner, Quarles & Brady.
Az Business: How should a business develop its crisis management plan?
Chase and Anderson: Crisis management planning should always start with more questions than answers. This process should never be considered a regulatory “check of the box”. If leaders want realistic and usable plans, they must commit to radical candor. Leaders should want a usable plan, but that will only come from establishing a team geared toward widening capabilities. There is no one person or department in an organization equipped to draft or implement a usable companywide crisis management plan, so leaders should recruit the most engaging and insightful subject matter experts to a “Red Team” from across the organization. This flexible group, anointed by leadership, can start asking the difficult and sometimes unpopular questions including, “Are we really equipped to handle something big right now?” Because the questions themselves and subsequent planning processes can sometimes fly in the face of organizational culture, pride, or established ways of thinking, it is critical the team be sponsored and supported by leadership, but also allowed to operate somewhat independent from the normal reporting chains. Once this team of radical thinkers has been let loose, they can start tackle the difficult questions head-on and finding realistic solutions.
Fink: A crisis communications plan ensures that executive leadership at an organization will have the roadmap needed to take appropriate actions in a timely manner when and if a crisis arises. The plan, if used correctly, will minimize the impact of a crisis upon the organization and normal business operations. If followed accordingly, this plan will also:
• Prevent long-term damage to the reputation of organization
• Keep confidence and satisfaction among the organization’s stakeholders
• Maintain successful employee morale
• Protect financial resources and save management time
• Avoid costly litigation
At the outset, you should establish a Communications Management Team (CMT) consisting of individuals who have been given the authority to develop and implement the crisis communications strategy. The CMT should include representations from across the organizational structure.
In most situations, the CMT will handle or assist with most elements of a crisis. When law enforcement or regulatory agencies have jurisdiction in a crisis, the CMT acts as a complimentary support body to preserve organizational interests.
The CMT’s responsibilities include assisting and/or managing:
• Pre-event contingency planning
• Gathering incident information
• Analyze information
• Develop strategies for resolution
• Communicate information and decisions to stakeholders
The following items should always be included in your crisis communications plan:
• Identify your stakeholders. This list should take into consideration your external stakeholders (customers, vendors, partners, investors, etc.) as well as your internal stakeholders (employees). Traditional, digital and social media outlets should also be included in your list of stakeholders. Be sure for each category you have appropriate contact information.
• Develop the roles and responsibilities of your CMT. A key role is determining who will serve as the spokesperson for the organization. Depending on the type of crisis, that may be the CEO or president or a department director.
• Key message development. General information about the organization should be readily available and included in all communications during a crisis. Information specific to the crisis should be prepared and disseminated on an ongoing and timely fashion. Keeping in mind that the situation can change quickly during a crisis so keeping this information updated regularly will be essential.
• Identify and assess example crisis scenarios. Outline possible scenarios in advance and develop strategies for how you will respond. Possible scenarios should be considered across all area of your organization.
Post-crisis is a very important part of the crisis plan. This is a chance for the CMT to pull together and evaluate its performance. The media coverage and its tone is a good judge of how effective the crisis plan is.
Post-Crisis Evaluation Cycle:
• Review media coverage; conduct content analysis- how was the crisis handled?
• Have post-crisis visuals: assess the damage by crisis
• Have a pool from the media come and view post-crisis conditions
• Meet with response team to evaluate plan’s successes and failures
• Keep all employees informed on all developments
No matter what the nature of a crisis, whether it’s good news or bad news, no matter how carefully you’ve prepared and responded … some of your audiences are not going to react the way you want them to. This can be immensely frustrating. What do you do?
• Take a deep breath
• Take an objective look at the reaction(s) in question. Is it your fault, or their unique interpretation?
• Decide if another communication to that audience is likely to change that impression for the better or make it worse.
• Decide if making that additional communication is worth the effort.
And finally, it is important to review and update your crisis communications plan. Most specifically in the event that a crisis has occurred, there have been changes to your key leadership and/or individuals assigned to the CMT and if the plan has been updated in the past three-four months.
Az Business: What should a business tell stakeholders and the public when faced with a crisis?
Brown: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. And then communicate. Transparency, both within the organizations and to stakeholders – and to media as well – is critical. Similarly, authenticity is key. And it can’t be a strategy. It has to be who you are; what the business is built on.
And this advice really applies to all the time, not just in times of crisis.
Smart businesses build their reputation for being researched, informed, authentic and transparent by doing it over and over, not just in times of crisis or in times of great prosperity. Our business has built a reputation over 103 years. It didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen by luck. It happened thanks to hard work, transparency and being nimble enough to help when needed. An example, during the Great Recession, we modified over 3,000 mortgages. Of those, 96% are still performing.
Chase and Anderson: Business leaders should always be transparent in communicating with the public and stakeholders. It is imperative to own bad news, even if the business reputation takes a hit. Unfortunately, we see many examples where the first instinct in a crisis is to minimize the impact on those outside the organization. Without a prior commitment to honesty and transparency, it is not always the instinctive response when you managing a crisis situation. As a leader we must remain calm, share the facts and data as well as assume ownership without exaggerating the severity of the situation or the level of response your organization is taking.
The core of any message to the public during a crisis should be succinct and acknowledge what is currently known and what remains unknown. By leading with the truth, especially when the news is difficult, the unknown will be considered a natural byproduct of the crisis and will further promote patience and calm. These “holding statements” will buy organizations the time they need to investigate, analyze, and then communicate the rest of the story at a later time. Initial messaging should be drafted by trained and vetted communications staff or spokespersons. Delivery of these messages should be from someone that matches the gravity and tone of the announcement, up to and including executive leadership.
Finally, communication, even during a crisis, is two-way; Organizations must listen to questions and be prepared to answer the tough stuff. The organization is also in the position to ask questions from stakeholders, including seeking valuable insight and feedback.
Fink: Transparency is critical in the event of a crisis. But how and when that information is shared must also be taken into consideration.
When a crisis occurs the need to communicate is immediate. Your business must be able to respond promptly, accurately, and confidently during a crisis in the hours and days that follow. Many different audiences must be reached with information specific to their interests and needs.
With support from the CMT and in particular the communications director, coordinate the release of the information. At the outset of the crisis, that might be an acknowledgment that you are aware of the incident and that you are working diligently to ascertain the extent of the crisis. During a crisis, information can change rapidly, so it is important to establish protocols and guidelines on who is authorized to provide information and in what format (news conference, statement or social media postings for example).
By developing your key messages (some as part of your initial plan) you will ensure more consistent dissemination of information.
Henderson: In a time of crisis, business leaders need to be transparent and present stakeholders with accurate information in a timely manner. It’s important to be clear and consistent with enough detail so that individuals can make informed decisions about their welfare, yet not be overwhelmed by what they are hearing.
Stakeholders should be in the know and presented with resources and access to experts that can offer best practices for coping during times of crisis.
Loo: When a crisis hits, businesses typically get into trouble from a perceived lack of transparency, lack of communication, and lack of action. First and foremost, leaders need to rapidly gather as much credible and reliable information as possible to make informed decisions and relay their understanding of the crisis to stakeholders as soon as and as clearly as possible. The danger is always wanting to wait until you have all the information before acting, but given the nature of most crises, one does not have the luxury of waiting until you have 100% information. Any delay in communication will be perceived as hiding the ball and avoiding the realities of the crisis. At the same time, you need to ensure that the information you have is in fact reliable and trustworthy.
Once armed with information, you need to then be proactive and take immediate action. Organize a response team, empower that team, stay in front and visible, and communicate often with your stakeholders and let them know what you are doing to address the situation. Communicate, communicate, communicate – you have to let your team and the public know that you have a plan to deal with the situation and explain what it is. Have a plan and be honest.
Az Business: How should a business incorporate social media, search engines and the organization’s online reputation management into its corporate crisis management plan?
Fink: Proactive communication is essential during a crisis. But reactive communication is equally as important. There should be sections of your crisis communications plan dedicated solely to social media crisis management.
Social media is a quick and efficient way to disseminate information in the event of a crisis. Some organizations will establish social media accounts specifically for this purpose, allowing for the steady stream of information specific to the crisis. When sharing information on social media, consider the following:
Authentic and Transparent
Crises can create uncertainty. It is important to use your social media channels to ease that uncertainty. So just as with traditional media, share information when you know it. And when possible, coming directly from a spokesperson authorized to be the social media voice during the situation.
With a few keystrokes, information can be disseminated to hundreds of thousands of followers. The key messaging that was prepared in the planning stages of your crisis plan should also include social media posts as well. Content is shared differently across different channels so it may be necessary to create a variety of posts depending on the channels being deployed.
It is also important to note that social media in and of itself, may be the cause of a crisis. Inappropriate comments, disgruntled employees, unhappy customers, among others, may take to the social media space to disparage your company. It is important that a representative from your communications team is regularly focused on social monitoring and online brand management. This will assist you not only in identifying when an issue may turn to a crisis but during a crisis, gives you real-time feedback as to how the situation is being perceived by your various stakeholders.
Az Business: How can the company avoid a potential crisis by listening to customers and employees?
Chase and Anderson: Reputation is the key to avoiding a potential crisis in communication. Listening to customers and employees should be a matter of course during good times so it not considered conciliatory during a crisis situation. Organizations that promote “Kaizen” culture not only improve their products and services, but they enjoy higher levels of employee and customer satisfaction. Leaders should recognize their products or services are never perfect and by acknowledging this frequently and consistently, organizations are often afforded the opportunity by employees and customers to implement this candid feedback.
Kaizen is a disciplined philosophical approach to the constant, incremental improvement of all business functions and includes engagement from every employee. It necessarily involves customers and employees from the beginning to solicit feedback. If a company makes a mistake or gets hit with something unexpected, they will have a trusted mechanism already in place to humbly and transparently approach and communicate with stakeholders.
Az Business: How can the company avoid a potential crisis by listening to customers and employees?
Henderson: Having an open-door policy that lets clients and employees weigh in and offer feedback on issues, policies and procedures is just good business. It shows you are invested in the people responsible for your company’s success. Listening to employees that are in the trenches, dealing with the day-to-day operations where many potential issues may be uncovered, means business leaders are informed and may be able to avoid potential pitfalls that can lead to crisis situations.
Valuing client and employee feedback build loyalty and a sense of unity. Staying engaged and really listening is the best form of prevention and a great way to get in front of and avoid a potential crisis. If a crisis can’t be helped, it’s important to have strong policies and procedures that are practical, understandable and easy to follow.
Loo: Of course, the first rule in any crisis is actually avoiding the crisis. Many times, as leaders, we tend to believe that everything is going well and fail to identify the initial warning signs that, looking back, should have been red flags. One way to avoid these blind spots is to regularly seek input from your customers and employees. For instance, we regularly survey many of our clients to determine areas where we are doing well and other areas that could use improvements. These are extremely helpful in many ways, including in reinforcing the message that we value our clients’ input and want to make sure that we are providing quality and value in all respects. Similarly, we conduct surveys of our team members, asking for input on a number of areas. Our employees and other team members are our eyes and ears.
Az Business: How should a business come up with a plan for business continuity when a crisis hits?
Chase and Anderson: Businesses should start by identifying the most critical functions, capabilities, and products for the organization. They should then map them against potential hazards and see where there are opportunities to add resilience. Business continuity is only one part of the crisis management planning process, but it often requires some of the biggest financial investments. Infrastructure continuity improvements aren’t the easiest to wrap your head around, but employees and the way the business interacts with customers must receive just as much attention in this process. You can have a strong building, but if your employees can’t work or your customers can’t access your goods or services, you have not built any continuity worth having.
Az Business: How can leaders in your industry help leaders in other industries overcome a crisis?
Brown: Banks – and bank leaders – are in a unique position in times of crisis. Many times a crisis can or will have a financial impact. Bankers are financial professionals and they can provide help to a customer whether it is retail or commercial insight or navigation help relative to the crisis.
Chase and Anderson: If there is one understatement to be made here, it is that we are all connected and dependent on each other in a modern economy. The silos of information, knowledge, leadership, and innovation must be broken down between industries. No one industry has a monopoly on good ideas.
In the mental health and information and referral industry, we offer realistic coping tools to a frantic public desperate for comfort. We can reinforce and educate good workplace mental health practices to industries on the front lines of this crisis including government and healthcare. We can bridge worlds of government and non-profits to bring meaningful advice and referrals to people desperate for reliable information and resources. We can continue to be available, and sometimes that’s the most important reassurance people and businesses need.
Fink: Public relations agencies such as HMA Public Relations are uniquely qualified to assist business leaders across a wide spectrum of industries develop and manage their crisis communications plans. Working with key leadership at an organization we can proactively develop the crisis communications plan.
We will guide your team through the process, ensuring these best practices are accounted for:
• Provide guidance for decision-making prior to and following a crisis situation.
• Identify and clarify the roles and responsibilities of the individuals assigned to the Crisis Management Team.
• Ensure accurate, timely, consistent information to stakeholders.
• Minimize confusion and rumors.
• Protect organization’s reputation and brand.
• Maintain credible relationship with community, industry and the media to support rebuilding efforts.
Past experience in managing communications during a crisis has provided our team with knowledge and expertise that gives us the flexibility and quick-thinking that is needed during this time. We can be a sounding board for organizations looking to get an outside opinion on process and protocol or we can be fully activated to provide a full-range of communications support including the development and distribution of key messaging, social media and online protocol, internal communications strategies, among other proven tactics.
Loo: In many ways, lawyers regularly assist companies in trying to formulate processes and systems to avoid a myriad of crises. If a crisis occurs, however, we partner with our clients by helping them navigate the legal maze and business consequences that typically result from such crises. Although the crises that we typically see do not come in the form of pandemics, we often guide businesses through data breaches, governmental investigations, and employee harassment claims, to name a few.
Az Business: Can governance processes help a board detect early warnings of an impending crisis and, if so, how should a business implement those processes?
Henderson: Yes. It’s imperative that boards monitor risk management areas at all times. Tracking key indicators with graphs and charts ensures the risks are communicated in a clear and efficient way. It also enables us to quickly identify trends and patterns in areas that could become full-blown issues. The pattern or lack of patterns may or may not identify issues, but the practice of monitoring and evaluating the patterns on a regular basis means boards can keep an eye on areas that could quickly become problematic and require expeditious intervention.
Every organization should have a multidisciplinary stand-alone risk management committee that meets no less than quarterly to review potential risks and identify areas in need of improvement. If an issue has been identified, the committee should immediately share their findings and recommendations for mitigation with the executive leadership team.
Az Business: What are the most important lessons individuals should take away from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Loo: Unfortunately – as I write this in early April 2020 – we are still in the relatively early stages of this pandemic, and we’ll continue to collect the various lessons learned. From what we’ve learned so far, I think this pandemic should remind us all of our basic human needs: connection, compassion, teamwork, family, and friends. I think in the hustle and bustle of the everyday, we sometimes get distracted from our most basic individual needs and the importance of the community that surrounds us. We take for granted the restaurants and grocery stores that feed us, the doctors and nurses, and other health professionals that care for us. We’ve seen the outpouring of support that the community at large has shown to those on the front lines of this pandemic, and we should continue that support once this immediate crisis is over. We should also not forget those hardest hit economically and devastated by this crisis, those millions joining the ranks of the unemployed. We need to support the community members that support us and the various organizations and non-profits that continue to provide essential services for our community members, especially during times like these.
Az Business: What are the most important lessons businesses should take away from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Brown: My fellow panelist, Abbie S. Fink, recently wrote a blog post about Fred Rogers, who most know best at Mr. Rogers. In it, she quoted him as saying:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”
That really struck me. I think we tend to use the term business leader, or leader, and look to them, but if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the helpers – that have come in so many forms – that are making the difference. That goes for everyone working in hospitals from doctors and nurses to administrative staff, techs and essential volunteers. That goes for teachers digging in and figuring out a way to keep schools running virtually. It takes everyone finding ways to be helpers to get through things of this magnitude.
Loo: One of the things that I think this pandemic has really emphasized is the vital importance of the role that our workers, especially our rank and file, have to our organization and our society’s success. I think businesses can sometimes overlook how critical every employee is to making our system function effectively. However, as we have seen during this crisis, we literally could not have continued to function without the cooperation of not just our brave doctors and nurses, but our grocery store clerks, our truck drivers, our warehouse workers, our delivery people. In our firm specifically, we have seen many of our members step up to this challenge including our office administrator Dave Buffum, our HR manager PJ Singh, a host of our assistants, and others, working as a cohesive team for the betterment of the firm and our clients, volunteering to pitch in where needed on a moment’s notice. They’ve all adapted to the rapidly changing work environment and needs of our clients, and we are grateful for that. We are reminded that every employee is vital to our success, and our overall success is inextricably tied to each of our employee’s own successes. Indeed, we are all in this together.
Az Business: What has your business done to help customers, clients, employees, and others during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brown: As you all know, the COVID-19 health emergency caused – and continues to cause – significant disruption to the national and global economy, affecting our clients in ways few of us ever imagined. WaFd Bank, by virtue of our strong capitalization and market strength, was uniquely positioned to help our clients and our communities in this time of uncertainty.
We were privileged to have the capital to provide liquidity to the markets we serve and provide stability in uncertain times. First, we implemented a Small Business Lifeline program through our Community Banking Group on March 12th. This Lifeline program, in which we have allocated up to $100 million dollars, was designed to help affected clients and non-clients by providing liquidity through business lines of credit up to $200,000 with 90 days of 0% interest. In addition to the Small Business Lifeline program, we implemented other payment relief assistance programs to help our clients that were not eligible for the small business program. This includes those that have consumer mortgages with WaFd, as well as our Commercial Banking Clients.
We also recognized that many small businesses were in immediate need of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, so we established the WaFd Bank PPP Contact Reservation List that allowed us to notify customers as soon as the PPP loans are made available.
WaFd Bank also created a COVID-19 Mortgage Payment Deferral Program, a homeowner assistance program allowing monthly mortgage payments to be deferred for three months.
Fink: When it became evident that COVID-19 was going to disrupt our agency’s regular business operations we instituted a few immediate actions:
• Updated our agency’s sick-leave policy and gave each employee the option of working from home (that changed quickly to a mandatory work-from-home policy).
• Notified our IT provider that our team would be working from home so they could ensure all employees could access the necessary computer files.
• Notified all clients that our team was working from home, ensuring they had all contact information not only for their specific account team members, but the agency’s president and vice president/general manager, as well.
• Activated a video-conferencing service in order to “see” our team on a daily basis as well as interact with all clients.
For the clients we serve, we immediately activated our crisis communications strategies, providing the necessary guidance and counsel regarding stakeholder communications. It was also important that we do not ignore the ongoing and regular communications efforts that we provide. So, throughout the crisis, we continue to evaluate opportunities (through a crisis lens) to determine how and when to respond.
As clients have had to change the way they do their business, HMA is developing strategies that include online programs and service delivery through webinars and podcasts, creating virtual events and fundraisers and establishing their executives as thought-leaders and resources in their areas of expertise, among others.
HMA Public Relations is the publisher of The Arizona 100, a twice-monthly e-newsletter distributed to more than 40,000 subscribers across the state. The 15 100-word stories highlight business and community news throughout the state. Throughout this time, we have issued special editions, with information and resources specifically related to COVID-19.
The Arizona 100 podcast similarly discusses issues related to COVID-19.
Henderson: Jewish Family & Children’s Service is an organization known for strengthening the community by providing behavioral health, healthcare and social services to all ages, faiths and backgrounds. The health and safety of JFCS clients, staff and volunteers is our highest priority.
Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS). As an agency that works with vulnerable populations who are most at-risk, we eliminated non-essential activities at our healthcare centers and program sites, and adapted some of our program delivery methods to continue serving those who depend on our services.
While our healthcare centers are up and running without interruption and offering telehealth services, we suspended the following programs In order to minimize risk to the senior members of our community until further notice:
• Aleinu Outreach & Education
• Bereavement Group Counseling
• Center for Senior Enrichment
• Memory Café
• Kibbitz and Kultur
And the following JFCS programs are continuing but have adjustments to service delivery:
• Jewish Counseling and Case Management
• Creative Aging
• Helping Hands Emergency Financial Assistance
• Hospital Chaplaincy
• Jewish Career Services
• Just 3 Things Food Pantry
• Older Adult In-Home Services
• Real World Job Development
• Senior Concierge
• Shelter Without Walls
• Creating Peaceful Families
• Parent Aide, Supervised Visitation, and Family Preservation
Loo: As you can imagine, every one of our clients has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another. Many of our clients have been unexpectedly thrown into situations that would have been completely unimaginable to them just a few weeks ago. Now, they’ve had to deal with issues such as determining whether or not they are “essential services”, to laying off or furloughing their employees, to considering the effects of not paying their bills and shutting down their businesses completely. We have assisted many with these issues, and in accessing financial relief during this turbulent economic time. Many of our clients are also in the healthcare space and on the front lines of this pandemic. We are working with them to navigate the healthcare regulatory landscape that is changing on a daily basis in an effort to manage the medical crisis that is sweeping the globe. For others, for instance, given the increased reliance on videoconferencing, we’ve had to address privacy and cybersecurity concerns.
We’ve also mobilized a team of attorneys across various practice groups to offer timely legal and business advice on issues related to COVID-19, and have made many of those resources available on our COVID-19 webpage. Our team has been continually monitoring issues relating to the pandemic as they affect our clients, and we are continually making additions and updates to the resource page, which is available to the public at large.
For our own employees and team members, our goal has been to provide a healthy and safe work environment, while at the same time making sure that we continue to provide quality service to our clients during these extraordinary times. To that end, we quickly and rather seamlessly moved to an all-remote work environment, with the exception of a very small number of team members necessary to handle critical matters. I commend our IT team who foresaw the potential need for the remote-work environment weeks before the first U.S. reported COVID-19 cases hit. Their advance preparations enabled us to have full remote capabilities early on for all our personnel, attorneys and staff alike.
The difference between an issue and a crisis
According to Abbie S. Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations, it is important to properly identify whether or not you have an issue or a crisis, as each are handled in different ways. Effective communications strategies can help prevent some issues from becoming crises.
You have an issue when:
• You have time to adequately assess the situation
• You can describe the issue and implement an immediate response or solution
• Typical business operations continue as normal
• There have been no injuries, illness or death
You have a crisis when:
• Business operations need to be shutdown
• There are injuries, illness or the potential for death
• An immediate response is required
• The Communications Management Team (CMT) is activated
• Multiple stakeholders will be impacted