How a CU reacts to crises says a great deal about the organization, its priorities and its leadership to members and the marketplace.
By Kelly Williams
July 3, 2008
CUES' Credit Union Management's online-only "PR Insight" column runs the first Thursday of every month.
Crisis and disaster communications are often a subject addressed when it is too late when a crisis has already occurred. Credit unions must embrace the fact that every organization will be faced with a disaster at some time. This summer's Midwest flooding is but one example of the kind of crisis a credit union could face.
Some crises are minor, but
some are quite severe, and planning is necessary for any and all incidents from
one extreme to the other. How a credit union reacts to crises as they occur
communicates a great deal about the organization, its priorities and its leadership
to members and the marketplace.
From a public relations standpoint, credit unions that are prepared for crises are the ones that are most effective in handling them when they do occur. They are best able to mitigate the negative impact a disaster can have on an organization, while serving the best interest of employees, members and their communities in a time of need or sorrow.
Preparing for Crisis
A simple crisis communications plan should include an initial response, an investigation, post-investigation responses and follow-up comments. The plan should always be written and reviewed before a disaster occurs and complement or augment any business continuity steps in place. Also, brainstorm the types of crises your credit union may encounter - natural disaster, data breach, technology failure, legal, etc. The more likely the crisis or disaster, the stronger our recommendation is to conduct a "drill" with the plan.
The goal of a crisis communications plan is to:
- speak with one voice;
- be transparent and honest (there is no such thing as "off the record");
- keep all audiences, e.g., members, employees, key media, in the loop;
- be leading story rather than following it;
- frame the news in the proper perspective;
- avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to communications; and
- maintain communication consistency.
Take a few moments to determine who your spokesperson should be. More than likely your CEO or president is ideal. In case your top executive is affected by the crisis, who is the second or third in command?
Speaking of command, where will your company command center be located in a time of crisis? Typically, this is in the main credit union branch. Credit unions should have alternative locations identified in case a natural disaster makes reaching the branches impossible. How will you get power and communications lines to the center?
In a time of tragedy, deadlines are impossibly short for the media. The quicker you can respond, the more community-conscious and dedicated an image you portray. If a spokesperson is not available in a timely manner, the credit union risks missing an opportunity to reach concerned employees, members and the public. At all costs, we want to avoid media using phrases such as, "The credit union could not be reached for comment." When possible, use your Web site, e-mail, phones and text messages to keep members, employees and media up to date.
Common Crisis Communications
While success stories in crisis communications are encouraging, it is often the mistakes we learn the most from. Some of the most common errors companies make in a time of crisis or disaster, include:
- failure to plan;
- rushing to judgment;
- failure to act;
- lack of concern, empathy or sympathy;
- affixing blame;
- bending the facts;
- restricting information internally; and
- absence of teamwork.
Your credit union should gather the details of the situation with particular attention paid to the types of questions/information media will request, such as:
- Have employees been impacted? How many?
- Have members been impacted? How many?
- Have members' families or employees' families been impacted?
- Have facilities been impacted? How badly?
- What is the credit union doing to help/reach/communicate with employees?
- What is the credit union doing to help/reach/communicate with members?
- What is the credit union doing to ensure business can continue as usual?
As the true impact of the crisis is uncovered, you will need to shift from immediate response to more forward-looking and prolonged response, typically including rebuilding efforts. If there is an opportunity to elaborate on how the credit union is working with employees, members and the community, include that information. Updates to the Web site, e-mail blasts and employee/member communications should also reflect any changes as quickly as possible.
Given the number of very public crises and disasters companies and communities have undergone in the past few years, there is no reason a credit union should be without a business continuity and crisis communications plan written and in place. These plans are not only to protect a well-built brand and image, but also to quickly and effectively help people at times where all might seem lost.
Kelly Williams is senior vice president of Atlanta-based William Mills Agency, Atlanta, a public relations agency serving the financial services industry. He is responsible for business development and provides strategic account management and support for the William Mills Agency staff and clientele.
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