By April Lollar, CCC, Coast Electric Power Association
As communicators at electric cooperatives, there is no if in crisis communications, there is only when. Many co-op communicators are a one-person shop and have many other duties to perform on top of their communications responsibilities, so it can be easy to push crisis planning to the back burner. After all, there are newsletters to write and social media content to post and annual meetings to plan! There will be time for crisis planning … someday. Right? Well, maybe. But since a crisis is typically something that happens without much warning, you shouldn’t count on it. If it is a weather crisis like a hurricane or an ice storm, you may have a few days to prepare, but those are days you should use to enact your plan, not to create one.
So, plan now. Don’t put your plan together for an ice storm when you see a freeze warning on your local TV station. Don’t plan for a hurricane when there is already a storm in the Gulf. Don’t try to write your media statements or social media posts after you find out about the accident. Pick a nice, sunny day to hash out the details of your plan.
Tips for planning:
- Set aside a day or two, if possible, and get out of your office. Even if you are just in the conference room down the hallway, take yourself away from temptations like checking your email constantly so you can concentrate on the task at hand.
- If you enjoy playing Worst Case Scenario, this is your time to shine. Use the beginning of your planning session to discuss all of the possible crisis scenarios you can imagine for your co-op. Keep it realistic – maybe you shouldn’t spend too much time planning for the zombie apocalypse – but do think about things other than weather-related scenarios. Maybe you’ve talked to members and media outlets after 100 tornadoes, but are you prepared if an employee makes contact with a line? Or if a member of your board or management team is charged with criminal activity? None of these things are fun to think about, but it is better to think about it now and be ready instead of trying to craft a response after your members start posting on Facebook.
- Consider reaching out to sister cooperatives near you to help with planning. We all know that cooperation among cooperatives is one of the best parts about our business model. We learn a lot from one another and this is a great way to get a broader perspective and share resources.
- After you identify possible scenarios, consider what your messaging should be for each scenario. Write it down so all you have to do in a crisis is open your book, flip to the necessary tab, and fill in the who, what, where and when blanks.
What should be included in the plan?
- Company policies
- Anything from engineering or operations that might help you communicate outage information – a system map, member counts from substations and feeders, etc.
- Employee phone numbers. You probably don’t have every employee programmed into your phone so make sure you have phone numbers accessible. Even if it is a co-worker you rarely talk to, you can never be sure who you will need to reach in a crisis situation.
- Media contacts
- Talking points and media releases and statements.
- A list of who is responsible for what during a crisis situation so you don’t have to spend time wondering if something important is being missed or duplicating efforts.
Social Media during a crisis
Likes and follows on your social media pages explode after a crisis. Your members want to know what’s going on. The good news is they are coming to you for information. The bad news is that it can get overwhelming quickly. You want to manage the message and reassure your members that you are on top of the crisis.
- Make sure you have open lines of communication with other departments so you have accurate information to share.
- Help set expectations for your members. It’s okay to tell them that you are working to answer all of their questions and concerns and ask for their patience and understanding while you work to do so.
- Remember that just because you have said it, doesn’t mean they have heard it. You may feel like a broken record, but members won’t necessarily look at every post you’ve made for information. They may ask questions you’ve already answered, but it’s still important to respond calmly and patiently.
- If there is a weather crisis that can mean widespread outages for several days or weeks, can you train someone to help you respond to social media posts? For example, if you are in restoration mode and your offices are closed, is there a cashier who is great a member service – and grammar – who you can work with to answer members on your pages while you post new content, do media interviews, etc.?
- Use photos and videos to show your members what your crews are facing. The conversation can quickly change when members see layers of ice on lines or broken poles.
- Social media can be a fantastic tool in a crisis. It gives you a platform to tell your story in your words and it gives you the opportunity to have a great conversation with your members. It may even help with call volume.
Practical tips to make it work
- Spread your message internally first. Employees can quickly become frustrated if they don’t know what’s happening so make sure they know what is happening before you spread the word to media or members.
- Electronic access to your plan is essential but you should also keep at least one hard copy with you. Really. Paper and ink in a binder. It might seem old school to have a printed document, but you never know what a disaster can bring. Keep one in your office and one in your trunk.
- Besides your binder, put together a crisis kit and have it in a space you can easily access in case of an emergency. Your kit should include things like your company id, cameras, power cords, chargers, shirts with your company logo and a battery charger for your phone and tablet. Not a free one you got at a conference. A nice one that will give you several charges. Keep notebooks, pens and other things that seem crazy in the digital world because you just never know.
- You might need more than one plan. If you live in an area where hurricanes occur regularly, you might need a plan specifically for hurricane season and another for other possible crisis situations.
- Don’t do all of this work just to put your binder on a shelf to collect dust. Review it once a quarter. Update media contacts and look over your talking points. The more you are familiar with your plan, the more confident you will be when it is time to execute it.