Failing to Prepare = Preparing to Fail

In the tech industry as in all things, disaster is always within the realm of possibility: Be it earthquake or flood, product malfunction or sudden stock slide. Measured and timely communications during crises are often key to mitigating damage and sustaining company mission.

Having an established crisis communications plan “in case of emergency” is simply sensible. It requires establishing situational awareness within your organization and outlining how your company is going to solve problems quickly as a team. Who needs to make decisions? What is the process for response or outreach? What will determine resolution? A crisis communications plan is like an emergency preparedness kit — you may never have to use it, but you’ll be glad you have it if disaster strikes.

Here are three tips excerpted from my PR Daily article on how to stock your crisis communications emergency kit.

1. Assemble the team.

Effective crisis communications hinge on activating the right team members. Response team documentation should clearly identify decision makers and supply contact information, note approval hierarchies (and back-ups), and assign spokespeople (and back-ups).

A typical enterprise critical response team may be comprised of the entire c-suite (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO), as well as legal counsel, the HR lead, head of corporate communications and product and/or regional leaders, as appropriate.

Back-ups are key. Remember you are planning for a crisis; it’s fair to assume some team members will be unreachable.

2. Appraise the response.

Communications audits are great preparation for crafting crisis plans. Trust departmental instincts to identify experts and knowledge bases within key groups and seek their input. Be sure to poll outside partners about their concerns in the event of a crisis and exchange emergency contact information.

Response time in a crisis can be crucial, so developing pre-drafted and pre-approved communication materials will give you a head start when you need it.

3. Plan of action.

Your course of action when dealing with a crisis event will address an issue spectrum (a list of between 6 and 20 areas where the company is potentially vulnerable). When developing an issue spectrum, always begin with the most likely and most potentially damaging.

For example, if you are a cybersecurity firm operating in Miami, your top two crises on the spectrum might be getting hacked and getting hit by a hurricane. Even something as simple as a pre-written online statement, such as “We’re aware of a problem and will keep everyone posted as we gather more information,” should be ready to launch.

More comprehensive action plans will include detailed messaging, an FAQ, holding statements, a press release or media alert draft, a landing page, customer/partner communications templates, and sample social media posts for each issue on the spectrum.

A word of caution: Companies tend to focus heavily on obvious dangers and overlook important, but less conspicuous, potential crises. For example, commercial airlines have well-developed crisis playbooks for responding to a plane crash, but some carriers seemed ill-prepared in the face of customer service calamities.

A great way to ensure you aren’t neglecting to prepare for a solid issue spectrum is to analyze what has happened in the past to other companies — particularly competitors — and model how you’d respond in similar instances. While most organizations won’t need to engage in exercises as drastic as The New York Times’ recent crisis simulation, it is helpful for response teams to periodically engage in a little role-playing. You can also monitor media coverage of how other organizations deal with a particular crisis, note things that help or hurt, and practice running through some scenarios.

No two companies are completely alike, but everyone can learn from others’ experiences.

Truth Matters

One of the simplest definitions of truth is “the property of being in accord with fact or reality.” Unfortunately, you can’t scan the headlines these days without noticing that there is no longer anything simple about the concept.

We have algorithms that amplify outrage over veracity, provocation via abuses in programmatic advertising, mistrust of science, charges of fake news and citations of “alternative” facts — even AI that can learn to falsify video. Reality seems a little less real and finding the truth gets trickier by the day.

In tech PR as in all professional communications, we all have a part to play in defending the truth. This isn’t a problem that will be sorted out in search engines or negotiated in newsrooms. It extends to what we all post on our blogs, share on social media, choose to include in OpEds, PowerPoints, whitepapers, press releases…you name it. Here are three tips excerpted from an article I wrote for MuckRack on standing up for truth —both in tech PR and in life.

1. Be honest
Authenticity is priceless. If your client hopes to do or be something, go ahead and say so. But be transparent about where they are in that pursuit. Don’t inflate or misrepresent the situation just to spice up a story, advance a brand objective, or win some pageviews. A bent toward hyperbole is an affront to truth and can easily snowball into catastrophe. (Theranos, anyone?) Conversely, feel free to tout real value and successes far and wide. Openly share vetted and verified data and hard-won experience. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with staking a claim, so long as you back it up with facts.

2. Check your sources
Pause before you cite or share “found” content on social media or search engines: Do the links trace to valid data? Who are the sources? Where did referenced statistics or images come from? Assertions from screamy red-faced radio hosts and Macedonian teenagers may be entertaining to some, but that doesn’t make their screeds true — and their pronouncements most certainly do not carry the same weight as analysis from Gartner or Gallup or Pew. We can no longer rely on the notion that if anything seems too weird to be true, it probably isn’t. But if you come across something astonishing that the international press corps has somehow overlooked, Snopes it before you share it.

3. Do your duty
If you are a subject matter expert, please stand up. And if you work with an expert, nudge them into the debate.
Our world would be poorer if Carl Sagan never eviscerated pseudoscience, Marc Andreessen never suggested that software is eating the world, or Clayton Christensen never asked how to measure a life’s work. We need real research, real expertise, real analysis, real discourse.

In the words of Louis Pasteur, “knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Do not let the flow of information fall to trolls and bots and no-nothings. Contribute genuine knowledge to the conversation and you are contributing to the cause of truth.

Garnering Media Attention in a Crowded Landscape

Pitching the media is always tricky. Here at Sterling, we only reach out to media when our clients have something to say – something newsworthy that we believe journalists and their audiences will actually care about.

Bottom line: Media attention is short, and we want to use it wisely. To that end, we use a variety of tactics in our outreach. While email has become the de facto (beating out phone a few years back), phone is probably still the most effective.

The next most effective? Social media.

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