Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, the saying goes. But in crisis preparedness, how do you prepare for the worst if the worst is simply unimaginable?
That was the challenge facing the Country Fire Authority during the tragic Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.
Last Thursday morning, n2n and our sister agency Fuel Communications hosted the latest in our series of Brainfood events, where senior communication and marketing executives can share insight and experiences in an intimate and informal environment. The focus for this Brainfood session was crisis communications and management, and how to prepare for, and react to, fast-moving and devastating events. We were fortunate to be joined by Anthony Spargo who played a key and senior role within the CFA comms team during the disaster, before joining GE as Director of Communications.
In a hugely interesting, thought provoking and, at times, moving presentation, he outlined what he learnt going through such an incredibly distressing, stressful and tiring situation. He was joined by n2n’s newest recruit, Katie Curran, who is herself no stranger to issues and crisis management, having worked with brands including BP Australia, LG Electronics, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and Coca-Cola to guide them through some challenging situations.
The discussion, as you’d expect with such a topic, covered a broad range of elements:
- the distinction between issues and crises, and corporate readiness and approaches to both;
- stakeholder mapping and engagement – nobody makes a friend in a crisis and it’s important to consider how to develop relationships with potential third party advocates in both issues and crises;
- how to get senior management buy-in to preparedness and engage internal stakeholders to speak the same language to ensure fast decision-making in a crisis;
- the importance of creating an ally of the media that is hungry for news but can also be your most important conduit to get out critical information to affected stakeholders and the public;
- and how critical thinking is imperative in a crisis – asking the right questions, thinking through the rational and emotional responses from all stakeholders and the context in which you are operating.
Listening to Anthony’s experiences from the front line really highlighted the importance of being adequately prepared for crises, and having strong issues management strategies in place. His top five lessons from the disaster should give us all food for thought:
1. Always plan for the worst-case scenario – Always plan, but as importantly always practice. Run scenarios and include the whole business not just the comms team.
2. Be totally organised – know who is responsible for what and have your processes in place. This needn’t be a fully fleshed out framework, but should include a list of questions, considerations and thought starters.
3. Lead by example and stay calm – don’t underestimate the importance of strong leadership and a calm head on team morale. While difficult to do, staying calm is the best way to galvanise a team and achieve your goals.
4. Divide and conquer – you can’t do everything, but ensure you have the right skills assigned to the right task.
5. Learn from your mistakes – every crisis is different and every response will show areas that could be improved or mistakes that can be made. Learn from these, re-define processes and be better prepared next time.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from the front line is that you must remain flexible. If things aren’t working, decide how you can change them and have the key decision makers ready and able to lead.
Thanks to everyone who joined uson a very wet morning and special thanks to Anthony for taking the time to share his insights.
We’ll keep you posted on the next event in the Brainfood series and hope to see you there. To stay up to date, sign up for our blog here.