Today, October 11, 2013, premieres the new movie “Captain Phillips” which is based on the true story of the first pirate hijacking of a U.S. commercial ship in nearly 200 years. B.J. Talley, who was a member of the communications team for Maersk Line who owned and operated the ship named the Alabama, recently published the article “What Somali Pirates Taught Me About Crisis Communications.” The article lists 11 important lessons in crisis communications that he learned during those exceptional days.
1. Talley’s first tip is that you should never build a crisis plan. While counterintuitive, he says plans never play out as outlined especially as circumstances can change every minute – especially in extreme situations such as a hijacking. Building a crisis process, not a plan, is far more flexible and helpful. A process offers you the option to build out the tactics on the fly. At a minimum, it is important to have some sort of a checklist as guideline, although realistically, you never really know what’s coming next. Talley didn’t expect a cargo ship hijacking with an American captain taken hostage as such a situation hasn’t happened in our lifetime. Instead of a step-by-step plan it is important to have an experienced team that is used to working together, and working fast. They need to have authority and a comfort level with making decisions quickly. From Talley’s perspective, that’s the best preparation for any kind of crisis that might cross your professional path.
2. To communicate effectively and respond appropriately, you need to have the right people and the right tools and resources at the ready. Talley advises organizations hold at least one crisis communications drill a year. Practice allows you to update and optimize your response and get more comfortable with it. Practice makes perfect.
3. No matter when crisis strikes – it’s the people who matter. Less is more, especially if communications could potentially harm crisis resolution and specifically, further threaten anyone in danger. Communicate this to your partners or the media – they will understand. In the Maersk Alabama case, the communications team broadened the information flow once the crew and the captain were safe.
4. Try to use any crisis as an opportunity. If your organization demonstrates strong leadership, responsibility, and the right values and ethics, the trust and respect of your stakeholders may actually increase after a crisis. Talley advises to always be truthful and transparent, and doing so will only strengthen your reputation.
5. In times of crises, legal and communications teams may not always see eye-to-eye, but friction should be avoided. Enrolling legal in the crisis process long before anything occurs, will help avoid potential issues later. Once again: practice! Involving lawyers in the crisis communications drill is even better. Talk about how to expedite information review while in a crisis and where the legal team can add value across the whole communications process. Having these conversations before an actual crisis situation allows both departments to perform better when it’s required.
6. Make sure your organization has the right spokesperson for any kind of situation and that they are media trained and ready to stand up in front of the press. Having a commanding, credible and empathetic spokesperson makes your job easier and reinforces your organization’s reputation.
7. Talley further emphasizes that continually working to cultivate and reinforce positive relationships with customers, partners and suppliers will also prove helpful when times are tough. And nurturing positive internal relationships with employees can also make a tremendous difference getting through a crisis and when evaluating organizational performance later.
8. During a crisis situation every mistake made can have tremendous repercussions. Obviously, do what’s possible not to make them to begin with by never making assumptions and always keeping close attention on all details. Mistakes have a way of snowballing so keep details in close control.
9. Having gone through a crisis isn’t the end of the story. Afterwards, and as soon as possible when the details are still clear, the team should analyze its performance. What worked and what did not? Evaluate the crisis response process and adjust it as necessary. Enroll all participants in this evaluation so everyone feels ownership and is clear on how to respond in the future. Such evaluations can be tough on egos, but key for the success of the organization.
10. And as effective and experienced as your internal team may be, it’s always smart to have outside resources ready as back-up, prepared to help in an emergency, quickly augmenting your internal team.
11. Tell your own story during a crisis situation using a wide range of digital, social media and information platforms to deliver it. Address questions, and interact directly- especially with your stakeholders.
In crisis communications there is always more to be learned and improved upon. Staying prepared and practicing regularly will keep the team engaged, focused and ready to work, should a crisis occur. So while you watch the movie this weekend, challenge yourself and see how you might apply these strategies if you were in Talley’s shoes.