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Distraction Communication
10 Steps to Prepare Leadership

                for Tumultuous Times

It has always been hard to be the CEO, but today, perhaps more so than ever before. The rise of citizen journalists, the public’s acceptance of paparazzi reporting and the trend of stories published before facts verified, creates near constant chaos for leaders. There is little to prepare you for managing a barrage of mistruth or voyeuristic journalism. Only the test of time, experience and growth of a strong exterior and a calm interior prepares a leader. And, communications professionals are challenged greatly today to guide new executives through the oft-repeated cycle of reputational threats.

Over the past 15 years, the public relations practitioner learned to grow multiple arms and several brains. Reactive crisis communications has always been a part of the job. But it has been an escalating phenomena and a more and more consuming task. But now the challenge moves to differentiating between real and hyped crises and how you manage both. This requires a different kind of communications team and a very different way to counsel our top leaders.

Leaders who grow thick skin and work well with the communications team manage the distractions and are more apt to keep an organization or company moving forward in today’s tumultuous climate.  That said, communicators must also recognize that their leaders find themselves in new territory. How do you gird up for the storms that are brewing, and how do you prepare your teams for grounding themselves when rumors, real crises and purposely-contrived misinformation converge and impact your organization’s reputation? Here are ten steps to changing the organizational culture and training everyone to weather the storms while not allowing distractions to stop organizational progress.

1.         Set the stage
While surprisingly difficult, the first step in developing a well-oiled approach to distraction communications is to bring all senior management together to talk through how to lead and manage in this disruptive environment. Our CEOs are only human, and sometimes they are impacted by the last person seen in his/her office. That last person could be the CFO who heard from his neighbor that the company was struggling. It could be the CIO mentioning that a competitor was just hacked and that she is concerned about new security weaknesses she just discovered. Perceived crises surface from anywhere and everywhere. Preparing the CEO and the senior team for real versus alleged crisis is critical. Organizations who have leaders who “Henny Penny” any and all issues are anchored in negativity and non-issues. When prepared together, the senior team can decipher when threat is real and when it needs to be managed locally. The senior communications professional needs to lead, educate and always remain calm, while deploying limited resources to attack the issues as proactively as possible. Senior teams respect a communications lead who is proven credible and has a team that moves swiftly and flexibly. The senior team also steps up to challenges when they are clear on their role and responsibility during tough times.

2.         Rethink your communications organization, skills and anticipate new needs
While a crisis can emerge from anywhere, there is often a pattern in the types of issues that confront our companies. For those recurring challenges, communications team members need to be assigned topics and develop both fact sheets and relationships in the organization with key individuals who can help inform them when a related crisis strikes.

Assigning communications team members to build excellent relationships within the organization helps expand your crisis team and more quickly and nimbly manage misinformation. Today’s communications team requires writers who are skilled in three key areas: research, media distribution and audience targeting. Ideally, communications teams know how to quickly seek out information and build fact sheets for those issues that come out of the blue. It’s a different kind of skill set – a combination of relationship-oriented team members who can write and communicate exceptionally for a variety of audiences using the correct tools to reach those audiences.

3.         Subset some portion of the staff to deal with crises while others remain committed to forward movement.

Many communications teams are small and as a result, when issues strike, the entire team becomes mired in the muck. Sub-setting some portion of the team to continue to stay positive and push out messages related to the company or organization’s strategic goals is critical. There is a ying and a yang to issues management. Often we overlook the need to continue business as usual while the chaos looms. Assigning responsibility to key team members to hold down the fort and continue pushing out positive information helps create balance before the crisis strikes.

4.         Manage the CEO… and the attorneys
The lead communications professional needs to flexibly shift between strategy, deployment and managing up. CEOs often get too involved in issues, and it is the job of the communications lead to constantly communicate with the CEO and assure her that the team is working toward regaining control. Too often CEOs either want to stand in front of the camera too early or don’t take on a role until it is too late. The communications leader knows when the time is right to deploy which spokespersons with the right messages. If the CEO calls the communications plan, it is often coming from a place of fear or anxiety and not from a practiced and skilled calm that only crisis management experience brings. Managing up becomes a major role for the lead communicator in any crises – real or perceived.

Also, from the very beginning, setting ground rules with the legal team helps the communications team from being silenced when media and publics demand a response. Always erring on the side of caution, there are ways to work with your attorneys that allow you to squelch rumors and address misinformation without setting the company or organization up for a lawsuit. Spending time with the legal team and working through issues in advance helps communications strategy to play out properly without whispers to the CEO to halt the positive flow of information.

Because of the level of management and strategic decision making needed during a crisis, the spokesperson for the organization, if at all possible, is best held by someone who reports to the lead communications staff. It is often not possible to play both the spokesperson role and manage the many messages that need to go out in different channels while also working with the senior team and CEO.

5.         Just the facts… and excellent relationships
In this world of “alternative truths,” the only way to counter is to become more transparent and nimble and to proactively plan fact sheets that can be quickly post to your Web site, social tools and other outlets and also serve as a guide to speaking with the press and your audiences. Indisputably, using facts to counter misinformation is the only credible approach. Unfortunately, when it comes to extremely confidential issues, stating that the company cannot respond is a great way to reinforce the rumor. There are ways to give responses that do not violate confidentiality.

Arming yourself with facts is important, but knowing the audiences and the media to whom you need to deliver that information puts the real gas in the tank. The public relations business has always been and will remain, relationship-grounded. Having good relations with the press and thought leaders before a crisis strikes is the key way to calm the storm.

7.         Align your tools and assign writers to specific audiences
Keeping a grid of your target audiences and how to reach each quickly and over a sustained period of time is important during your crisis planning time. Often it helps to subset some of your staff to specialize in a specific audience or two so that if a crisis hits that requires in-depth understanding of how to match the tool to the audience, someone is well versed and ready to build out the media distribution plan. Understanding that your audiences are divided by generational trending, gender, affinity, profession, etc., the communications team needs to know how to segment out messages in specific media and on an appropriate timeline to ensure that your words are reaching your most important targets.

8.         Create purposeful feedback channels
There is nothing worse than having an unexpected crisis hit and the only way your audiences can speak out is through their own social channels. Immediately setting up FAQs with contacts for live interaction is important or the information dam will be filled with too many holes early in the process. Not being prepared with ways to have your audience ask questions or express concern can result in having too many outlets perpetuating rumors. If phone lines or e-mail respondents or social media monitors will be needed, someone needs to set up the team that will respond and have them trained and ready to deploy to counter misinformation directly so that social media doesn’t fill the void and create even more unfortunate misunderstandings.

9.         Underscore your social media policies for managing negative, vulgar and false information
The time to know if a post on your social channels is inappropriate and needs to be taken down is not when the situation occurs, but long before you have a crisis. Understanding who is responsible for monitoring and the extent of their authority to make decisions about posted content needs to be well understood and rehearsed by the communications team, leadership and attorneys. Proactive crisis management means having a written policy that specifies responsibilities and processes for decision-making and having regular drills to test everyone’s understanding of those policies.

10.       Create an informal ombudsman to work with the internal community
Sometimes it is our own employees who are feeding the misinformation. Often, this occurs when we forget that our own teams need information while we are blazing swords in battle with the public. Another team member needs to be watchful for what the internal staff are saying and for ensuring that they too are proactively receiving messages. Reading about your workplace woes on Twitter is not a great way to instill confidence and build loyalty among the staff. Define internal communications channels; assign responsibility for monitoring and populating those channels; and plan out when and how to implement internal strategies helps the organization keep control during a crisis.

Every organization and company has a different culture, but some things are similar when a crisis hits. The preparedness of the CEO, trust in the communications leader, and  defined roles and responsibilities for all senior leaders and the communications staff serve up the ingredients to better preparation.