With images of devastation from Hurricane Harvey all over the news and the potential of more heartbreak to come from Hurricane Irma in the Atlantic, it’s easy to forget that September is National Preparedness Month. This initiative, organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has as its theme “Disasters Don’t Plan Ahead. You Can.”
Though it’s imperative that we use proactive leadership to take action in our communities, monumental disasters still have a way of blindsiding us.
“How could that have happened? No one could have predicted this!”
I hear some variation of that frequently. Be it at home or at work, in a situation with such consequence as the election of Donald Trump, or as minimal as breaking an iPhone, many people react to issues of all sorts with an explanation of the event being a freak occurrence.
Usually, that’s not true.
While it might be difficult to predict the exact nature of a crisis, catastrophe, or minimally discomforting event, there’s little that’s entirely unpredictable.
Quietly navigating catastrophe, crisis communication professionals work in-house with companies and as consultants around the world. As a student in the University of San Francisco’s MA in Professional Communication program, I had the opportunity to take a semester-long dive into crisis communication. While I’ve previously worked with communicators professionally, it was transformative to be exposed to deep thinking about how organizations, from the world’s most trusted brands to the smallest start-ups, handle reputation management.
The experience dramatically changed my thinking about the way that organizations and individuals look at problem solving and practice proactive leadership.
My professor, Larry Kamer, a crisis communications professional who has consulted for dozens of top companies and nonprofits, gave the following hypothetical early on in the course. He asked:
“How many of you have an earthquake kit in your home or car?”
Not a single hand in the room went up.
Let me reiterate: in San Francisco, a city that has a 75 percent chance of a magnitude 7 or higher earthquake hitting in the next 30 years, not a single graduate student in the room (including myself) had an earthquake kit in their home or car.
When the “big one” does hit San Francisco, there will be stories of death and destruction. Media outlets will ask how the disaster ended up as bad as it was, and the answer will be that we didn’t prepare. We knew the risks, but we didn’t follow the necessary steps to be ready. Even though four high-intensity earthquakes have hit the Bay since 1979, we’ll claim ignorance.
In a corporate, nonprofit, or personal environment, we can all learn from Kamer’s example: few problems are truly new and, in most cases, we have the ability to prepare for the response to catastrophe in advance.
The basic strategies for crisis communication planning and response are not industry specific. When companies are in crisis, stakeholders often seem to think of communication professionals as spin doctors, working to make an issue sound less problematic. While communicators do want to maintain the reputation of the organization, the truth is that the best in crisis communication follow a universal formula; to make things right for all stakeholders involved. In fact, if an organization has done their preparation, there need not be any spin at all—just clear information and positive action.
Ultimately, crisis communication is grounded in proactive leadership that takes a realistic, not fatalistic, view of the world. As individuals, we need to accept that there is always a possibility for failure. Sometimes, leaders might not prepare for the possibility because “it couldn’t happen here.”
But that “it” in question? “It” could happen. If crisis communicators can strategize out the possibilities and prepare, so can each of us.