Let’s face it, financial institutions are no strangers to a good ole crisis. From data breaches, FDIC memos, to fines from the CFPB, a crisis is inevitable and often occurs without warning. Even more, they can have long-lasting effects that impact the institution’s reputation, making crisis communication planning an integral part of any financial institution’s operations.
Effectively mitigating a crisis involves careful planning, and because of the nature of crises, these plans must be flexible. For example, a spike in negative press may impact the public’s perception, causing your plan to change dramatically.
1. Identify the Crisis
The first step in the planning process requires that you identify any potential crisis. What constitutes a bona fide crisis? How will your institution define a “crisis?” How will you know if/when it’s time to enact your crisis communications protocol? These aren’t rhetorical questions. If your team doesn’t define, understand and agree on what is or isn’t a crisis, then you may find your institution overreacting to every small fire that breaks out. You don’t want to trigger your crisis communications protocol more than necessary.
Gather as much information possible to develop a complete and accurate picture of the situation. It is also critical to hold an internal briefing call or meeting with key executives before reacting or responding to any crisis. You never want to jump the gun. Make sure everyone is on the same page.
2. Assemble Your Crisis Communications Team
It is also important to determine those who will be involved in the process. Typically, the team consists of the CEO, president, the head of public relations or marketing, vice presidents or managers of key departments, legal counsel and possibly board members.
3. Determine the Appropriate Position and Messaging
After you have a complete understanding of the crisis, you must then determine the best position your financial institution should take and the right response (both message and medium), whether it be a public apology or an “open letter” offering an explanation of facts. Remember that your first and foremost goal is protecting the integrity and reputation of your financial institution. Never misrepresent the truth, nor deny culpability when guilty; it will only add fuel to the fire. If you ignore the situation completely, the consequences might be worse.
In some circumstances, something that might — on the surface — appear to be a crisis may not necessitate a response at all (more on that in just a minute).
And finally, don’t let attorneys make all the decisions; doing so may cause the crisis to escalate. Instead, partner with them to ensure you are dealing with the situation from both perspective — legal and reputational.
4. Designate Your Spokesperson
Your financial institution should identify a spokesperson to handle all media requests. When possible, you should try to concentrate this responsibility with just one single person, otherwise it will take more work to keep everyone “singing the same song.” For larger institutions, this may be unavoidable. If it’s necessary to have several spokespeople, make sure your crisis plan addresses scalability and the hierarchy of roles. For certain crises, will you need to equip regional managers with the tools and direction they need to handle their role as spokesperson. How will different audiences be accounted for? What messages are approved at what levels? Who can say what?
5. Develop Your FAQs
Develop a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). This can be used for internal purposes — something you provide to all spokespersons. This document will serve as general talking points for all external and internal communication, and should address any potential questions that could be asked. But it is also important to note how/where responses to certain questions may vary significantly based on the audience segment you’re communicating with.
6. Develop Messaging for Employees, Customers, and Internal Stakeholders
With your FAQ serving as the foundation of your communication plan, you should then develop unique messages tailored for each constituency: employees, customers and any relevant internal stakeholders (e.g., branch managers, or your board of directors). The tone should be personable and comforting, and address the specific concerns for each group.
Each audience segment will be intently focused on one thing: “What does this mean to me?” For instance, employees will be most concerned with whether the crisis impacts their job security, whereas customers will want to know if the crisis impacts the long-term stability of the institution or materially affects their account(s) somehow.
Your response should be issued no less than 24-48 hours after the crisis erupts, even if your initial response is to simply (1) acknowledge the situation, (2) explain that you are investigating it, and (3) ensure that you will take any steps deemed necessary to rectify the crisis. Be sure to issue your response to all parties at the same time. This will minimize speculation, misconceptions and rumors among your various constituencies.
7. Develop Your Media Plan
Your crisis communication team must be fully prepared to communicate with the media, but before doing so, you must first determine if your communication strategy is proactive or reactive. Some crises may require proactively issuing statements to the media — you are obligated to respond publicly. In this case, your crisis communication team must determine the most appropriate method — e.g., a press release, a press conference, or individual one-on-one briefings with key journalists/media outlets. If your institution has a blog or uses social media, make sure your communications strategy addresses if, when and how these channels will used.
Some crises — particularly internal issues — may not necessitate an immediate and public response. It may be in the institution’s best interest to not alert the media. In some circumstances, you may choose to take a reactive position, and wait to see if an issue becomes public before releasing any information. If that’s what you decide, it’s still smart to prepare your response and have it ready should you receive any calls from the media. If you already have a designated a spokesperson to handle inquiries and a FAQ that addresses potential questions, you’ll be in the best possible position to neutralize any potential damage that media coverage could cause.
8. Prepare Media Communications and Facilitate Media Training
Specific to handling media inquiries, you should strongly consider conducting media training with any spokespersons you’ve identified. You can use one of your crisis FAQs as the foundation for the “fire drill.” This will teach them how to field questions not addressed in the FAQ (e.g., simply acknowledging that you don’t know the answer, but will find out is sufficient). There are other skills they can learn, such as how to “pivot,” the art of answering a different question than the one you were originally posed (politicians abusively — but effectively — use this technique).
9. Monitor Media Coverage
To ensure your plan remains effective, the team must monitor media coverage throughout the crisis — positive and negative. The media’s perspective provides good insight into the current health of the financial institution’s brand image. Awareness of these perspectives — archived in chronological order — can shape your response to any current or future crisis. Instead of looking at each article on its own in a vacuum, it helps to view the media’s treatment of your institution through a historical lens — a longer, continuous narrative.
10. Evaluate Your Plan
Finally, once a crisis has passed, it is essential to conduct a post mortem, so you can debrief and evaluate where your plan may need to be adjusted. Document your process, and plan accordingly for future crises. What worked? Did we develop any ‘best practices’ through this experience? What could have been executed better? What should have been done that was not?
Mary York is an account director at William Mills Agency, the nation’s largest independent public relations firm focusing exclusively on the financial services and technology industries. You can find William Mills on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the company’s blog.