Stand by me

Five communications steps to help associations prepare themselves for crisis

There may be strength in numbers, but a crisis can hurt a trade association just as much as a private company or other organisation. But by following five communications steps, associations can prepare themselves for the worst.

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Associations tend to believe that they are sheltered from crises.

Although they have members who may experience crises more readily, associations see themselves as one or two steps removed from the front line, so generally not really crisis-prone. That is a mistake.

Of course, associations also clearly know that any crisis affecting one – or more – of their members will affect, if not their own reputation, at least that of the sector or industry they represent. That in itself should be enough of a warning signal for associations to prepare for a crisis.

So, step one: anticipate the possibility of a crisis and explain the relevance of this preparation to colleagues and management. Have them trained in crisis communications because you will not have time to do so at the last minute. And make sure awareness is kept at the right level and the training is renewed regularly. It is well worth the expense as they will find out when a problem arises. See it and present it as an investment. Members may actually be able to support you in this, since several of them are bound to have crisis roadmaps in place.

Step two: Be prepared! Try to imagine possible crisis scenarios which would affect you as an association. They will most likely differ from the ones your members have imagined, but it is worth asking them what they have in place to help you anticipate. You will never encounter the exact same scenario but at least if/when it happens, you will have discussed the possibilities and will bear them in mind. Think of individual companies, sectors or countries where a crisis could affect you. Think of what may be at stake: environment, employment, product safety and so on. You will find that the list is long enough to convince your management of the necessity to prepare.

Step three: whether you are active on social media or not, you need to monitor what is happening there. What is said about you as an association is one thing; but what do influencers say about your sector? What is talked about in relation to your activities? Who leads the debate? What is said about your individual members, what is their reputation like? One of the recurrent traits of associations is their limited resources, whether human or financial (or both!). Members have resources you don’t have and it is often a matter of identifying the right contact person to benefit from them. Individual companies will generally have social media experts and will monitor closely their online reputation, so get in touch with those experts and tap into their knowledge. If your members are other associations, partner with them and divide the work so you pool your resources to everyone’s benefit.

Step four: stakeholder mapping is a classic step but often it is limited to the most obvious ones. Try to expand, list stakeholders according to issues, with accessible contact details, their target groups, etc. They will be easier to identify when you need a quick overview. And remember that ‘friends’ on certain issues may be ‘enemies’ on others.

Step five: Tick the boxes. Your preparation is in place, you have taken the first steps, now make sure you can carry out what you set out to do. This means that you must have a mandate from your members to handle a crisis situation at association level when it happens. This may seem obvious but anyone having ever worked in an association will know that members can be extremely sensitive when it comes to the communication of the association they belong to. Some will want to control every message, which is simply impossible at times of crises, when time is of the essence. So make sure you inform your members of how prepared you are, and ask them to give you a mandate to handle the situation if need be. Of course you will need to involve them, particularly those who are most directly affected by the issue at stake. You should also be able to tick the #network’ box, i.e. have the contact details of all your key people available. We all know crises tend to happen on a Friday afternoon or in the middle of August when everyone is soaking up the sun in some impossible location. Have the mobile phone numbers of your boss, your president, vice-president(s), treasurer, etc., carefully listed somewhere easily accessible. Make sure the decision line is clear to everyone and everyone knows how the hierarchy works, so you do not have to worry about that when the time comes to make an immediate decision in the name of your association.

That’s it, you’re ready – if not really willing.

Transparency and sincerity

And some day it happens.

Immediate dos: assess the situation. Who is affected? If it is one of your members, what can the repercussions be on your association? Will these members expect you to stand up for them? What will the other members’ reaction be? Don’t panic, colleagues and members will be looking at you to show the way. You panic: they get scared. You stay calm: you’re in control.

Assess the risks as well: are there environmental risks? Health risks? This will help you define your stakeholders, but also decide whether or not you need to bring in legal advice. If the crisis affects one of your members, they will do that, so get informed. Allocate tasks within your organisation, make sure everyone knows what their role should be and position yourself as the coordinator.

" You panic: they get scared. You stay calm: you’re in control."

Who will speak for you? It is difficult to be both the coordinator and spokesperson. If you coordinate the crisis reaction, bring someone else as spokesperson. It may be your director general – this would allow you to keep some leeway in case the crisis escalates and you then need to bring in the president. Whatever you do, make sure your messages are aligned with that of your affected member(s).

The spokesperson could even be the same for all. And please when choosing a spokesperson, don’t necessarily go for the most senior. The most articulate is a much better option, someone who will show empathy and whom people will like. That is probably one of the most difficult tasks you may be faced with in an association: be able to refute your director general or president as spokesperson if you think they cannot do the job. Good luck!

We all know that transparency and sincerity are key in a crisis. Don’t spin. Try to buy (a bit of) time if really necessary by saying that you are trying to find out what happened, etc, but never promise anything! Your job is dual: while ensuring you communicate to the outside, you must also make sure you keep your members’ trust, so do inform them regularly.

As the crisis evolves, adapt. It may get worse, but you may also be lucky and things will be solved rapidly. All along the process, it is crucial to keep assessing the situation so that things do not get completely out of hand.

And when eventually things die down, you should not underestimate the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Reassure. Reassure your members that things are now under control, show that you helped solve the issue, show that you represented their interests to the best of your capacity. You may even find that this may attract new members! Reassure your stakeholders too. Go online, be present in social media, thank people for their help and support, explain how you have solved the crisis and outline the measures in place in order to avoid repetition.

Rebuilding trust is what will help you rebuild your image, and at the same time that of your sector and members. Remember the words of Winston Churchill and “Never let a crisis go to waste!”

Florence Ranson

Florence Ranson is founder of REDComms. Previously, she was director of communications at FoodDrinkEurope. She took this role in April 2014, after 12 years as head of communications at the European Banking Federation. She is responsible among other things for media relations and CSR. Before that, Florence was secretary general of the European Advertising Tripartite, the European organisation representing advertisers, communications agencies and media.