Select the right words. Say them well.

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Billionaire Warren Buffett once told NBC News, “It’s taken us 37 years to build this firm … we could lose it in 37 seconds.” He meant if you say the wrong thing at the wrong time you can do yourself major damage. (Just ask Don Imus.) While everyone in the business world from Warren Buffett on down understands this idea, very few people actually set up a plan to handle a crisis. It’s always a top priority … for next year.

While I can’t tell you what you need to do from an HR or legal perspective, I can give you some insights into the Communications side of a crisis and why you need to plan NOW for a crisis, not next year. While it is tempting to put off spending the time and effort on a crisis plan, it’s not a matter of IF but WHEN that crisis will hit. (As Mr. Buffett correctly points out, you may not be around next year to set up a plan.)

Who Speaks and What Do You Say?

Whether it is a natural disaster, a legal crisis or a personnel issue, offering a “no comment” to your customers, business partners, employees or the general public just won’t work. They will assume the worst when an information vacuum is allowed to exist, and you only have yourself to blame. When you have a Crisis Communications Plan everyone understands who can speak and what is appropriate to say in almost any situation — even in a legal dilemma with millions in damages hanging in the balance. First, know that you can talk about the good work your company or agency has accomplished, and what your general plans are moving forward.

A Crisis Communications Plan can provide the templates to get the basic messages out so you are not starting from scratch when all hell is breaking loose. It also helps you remember ALL of the important audiences out there who need to hear from you — and your employees should be receiving a different message from your customers or your suppliers. (Even if there are a just a few words which personalize the message, they can be very important words.)

Keep the Plan Current

While others may approach this issue differently, I always prepare an easy-to-use plan for clients. Part of the reason is to make sure it stays current. A Crisis Plan is no good to you if it is out-of-date when you try to put it into action. Also, a simple plan of 20 pages or less gives you a realistic working document that a broader group can quickly understand and put in place. People come and go in the modern workplace, but you all share a need to maintain the integrity of the place where you collect your salary.

Practice

All of the above is great, as long as some effort is made to practice with your Crisis Plan. You’ll learn a great deal along the way and improve the process every time. Please get in touch with me if you have questions or comments — this is a critical matter that should never be put off.