Take Control of Crisis Messaging
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
The recent Rogers Telecommunications outage was a disaster for the company, and not just from the standpoint of criticism against Rogers, and untold amounts lost by businesses and individuals impacted by the outage. Rogers is now under the microscope of organizational culture, and the entire telecommunications industry is being scrutinized for potential issues stemming from corporate monopolies.
A positive tangent from the Rogers outage exists, though, in other organizations — public, private, and non-profit — being reminded to review their Crisis Communications plans and protocols.
It shouldn’t take a crisis for us to be protected from crisis, but that’s often the case, as organizations now scramble not to become the ‘Next Rogers.’ One of Rogers’ main issues in the outage, though, wasn’t the loss of service (though that obviously tops the charts); instead, it was the lack of communication to the public and stakeholders, combined with poor key messaging. Sadly, this isn’t a problem unique to Rogers. We’ve seen it consistently throughout the years in Council- and Board-driven organizations of all kinds, including municipalities. There’s no point in rehashing what I consider one of the biggest municipal crisis communications flubs Canada has seen in the past couple of decades. Still, the Rogers incident brought back echoes of that crisis from a communications standpoint.
While it took the municipality in question six hours to release a statement on a major local crisis with significant public safety implications, it took seven hours for Rogers to release any messaging related to the outage. Seven hours.
That’s seven hours of people not just losing cellphone connectivity but also losing potential work, being unable to use their debit cards, not being able to phone 9-1-1, and the list goes on. In return, they were faced with silence.
The Role of Crisis Communications
This was a significant communications error on Rogers’ part and one that could so easily have been avoided. The initial stages of crisis communications are crucial, but they’re not difficult to cover:
1. Here’s what we know so far.
2. Here’s what we’re currently doing in response to the crisis at hand.
3. Here’s what our next steps are.
I’m simplifying things quite a bit here, but in essence, that’s all that needs to be communicated through initial crisis messaging. It’s partially an acknowledgement that an organization is aware of an issue at hand and partially about essential accountability.
The problem many organizations place upon themselves is that they want to have all the information in hand before putting anything out into the world. That is not the right approach to crisis communications. A statement should be made as early as possible, addressing the elephant in the room.
Putting the Right Person Behind the Microphone
Much of the criticism levied against Rogers following the initial delay in messaging seems to target the spokesperson tasked with being the face of the outage, when he was likely ill-qualified to be in that role. This isn’t an accusation of incompetency, but rather that of inappropriate personnel being tasked with a difficult task at the best of times.
Were his interviews good? Not in the slightest. Is it his fault? Honestly, much of it likely isn’t.
An organization needs to know who’s doing what in a crisis scenario, as anticipated through an effective Crisis Communications Plan. This unfortunate spokesperson should never have been placed in front of a camera. That onus would have better fallen on someone leading the company — a CEO, a COO… anyone, really. To place the task of ‘spokesperson’ on an operational employee was likely the wrong choice. This decision potentially worsened the situation by having this spokesperson echo myopic messaging. It really was too little, too late.
This spokesperson was quick to relay Rogers’ talking point of wanting to determine the “root cause” of the outage. Still, he didn’t seem to have much to say outside of that — despite being placed in front of cameras for considerably lengthy interviews, which were bound to stray from one single talking point (as all interviews are). This spokesperson was thrown to the wolves, for lack of a better term, and therefore, was not equipped to succeed.
Planning for Success
Is this something unintentionally being faced by your organization? For example, is the mayor the most appropriate person to represent a municipality on-camera in releasing initial information relating to a crisis situation? Is your designated spokesperson trained in effective Media Relations? Are you equipping that person with what they need to succeed?
While a nationwide outage isn’t likely to ever be driven by local government, or other public organizations, this is an excellent opportunity to take a step back and assess your own Crisis Communications Plan:
Do you have an up-to-date, adaptable plan in place?
Does your plan contain contingencies for different scenarios that may occur?
Does your plan include communications timelines and key messaging templates?
Does your plan identify spokespersons?
Are management and staff aware of what your plan contains and their role in executing that plan?
Are Council or Board Members aware of their role in Crisis Communications?
Where do you hold copies of your plan, and are staff aware of those locations? (Note: Plans should be kept in digital and physical locations — “locations” being plural.)
If your organization doesn’t currently have a Crisis Communications Plan, if your plan may be up for a review and update, or if your team needs training to execute your plan properly in the event of a crisis, please reach out. I’d love to speak with you and help figure out exactly what your needs are and how we can help. I can be reached by email (email@example.com