A Startup Roadmap for Good Crisis Communications

Someone recently pointed out to me that “a crisis is the ultimate teachable moment.” Startup founders have long known this. Whether you find yourself dealing with a sudden lack of access to commercial loans, the collapse of a funding round, a management change, or even a failed product, you can help yourself work through such unpredictable — yet probably inevitable — business challenges by being prepared in advance with a response plan. One of the most important areas of your preparation, but one that is often overlooked, is your communications plan.

Maintaining clear and consistent communication with your staff, investors, customers and your partners can make all the difference to the success or failure of business in crisis, says Wendy Lane. She is founder of the public relations and marketing firm Lane PR based in Portland, Ore. Over the years Lane has helped clients, cope with all kinds of crises: from bankruptcies, to public political snafus, and in once case, a violent tragedy at a place of business. (Believe me, this sort of crisis puts the stock market turmoil into perspective, fast).

The point is, a crisis is a crisis because it creates uncertainty. You cannot predict exactly who you’re going to need help from in a pinch – employees or lenders, or both? People you thought you could rely on will surprise you in positive and negative ways. This is why keeping healthy lines of communication open with all of your constituencies is so important. Naturally you should do this as a matter of course in your daily business, but in the end, says Lane, “Good crisis communications is about transparency, transparency, transparency.”

Lane’s firm has a crisis management plan for its clients. She offered to share it. Here are some takeaways:

1. Identify risk areas of your business that could lead to an internal crisis, or be compounded by an external one. You’ve already done this with your business model, now think about how your risk area could be compounded by exposure to customers or the media. Risk areas to consider: death or serious illness of a senior executive; serious on-the-job injury; technical challenges; natural disaster; security breach.

2. Create a crisis management team and have a senior executive it. Appoint an internal communicator to support employee communication activities. Select an external communicator, to deal with outside parties like media or retail customers. (If you have one, this is your PR counsel.) Deal with investors. If you cannot take it on, appoint another senior staffer to deal with partners. Just make sure no constituency is getting communication from more than one person – consistency is important.

3. Develop a call list. Sounds like a call tree, but do it. You have no idea how much it will help you in a panic to have previously prioritized who among your senior staff, or your board, needs to be contacted, and in what order. Contacts for every member of your crisis management team should also be on the call list.

Develop your message. Do not do this in a vacuum. Use your crisis management team to help you. Any outside adviser you enlist for help (a lawyer, etc.) is now de facto part of your crisis communications team. Choose carefully.

Notify your constituencies in a concerted effort. Tell non executive-employees collectively about your crisis in order to dispel rumors and speculation. Call a staff meeting, send a broadcast e-mail or voice mail. Do not communicate piecemeal. Be candid. Deliver updates as information is available.

Assume that any information you share with employees, partners, investors, etc. could be communicated to the media or outside parties.