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Crisis? What Crisis? (Make a Plan)

April 13, 2012
This image is in the public domain in the United States because it was first published outside the United States prior to January 1, 1923

Edvard Munch, Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream)

The most important thing about a Crisis Communications Plan is having one – before it’s needed. Yesterday, Heather Whaling posted a nice and simple five step Crisis Communication Plan on her prTini blog. I thought was a great start and worth sharing:

1 – Establish the Crisis Team
2 – Identify and Prepare the Spokespeople
3 – Develop processes and protocols
4 – Prepare for New Media’s Impact on Crisis Communication
5 – Brainstorm Possible Scenarios & Responses – Role Play – Repeat

One of my first experiences with implementing a crisis communications plan was in the fall of 1999 as Microsoft braced for the “Millennium Bug”. What promised to be Microsoft’s equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster (1989) or Odwalla’s E. coli outbreak (1996), ultimately turned out to be a bit of a letdown. At least it seemed that way at the time, all that work and no crisis! Of course the best crisis is one that is averted. The second best crisis is one for which you are prepared.

Less than a year later I experienced the latter. In the fall of 2000 I was working on the Windows news team leading the efforts to bring a more approachable Microsoft story to the “broad-reach” consumer press not traditionally interested in PC technology. These types of publications often have long lead times. For example, the article for the September issue of Good Housekeeping had to be submitted in June, and that was the extended deadline! In order to meet these lead times, I had provided pre-release versions of Windows Millennium Edition with all the “bells and whistles”. I also worked closely with my press contacts to assure they had positive experiences. Things were going well and many of the articles were long “put to bed” by the time the product launch rolled around. But within days after the public release of the new operating system the Windows team was under siege. Short lead reviewers at city newspapers (“metros”) were writing negative reports and the nascent online communities (this was 12 years ago) were posting about their bad experiences, influencing a whole new round of unexpected coverage. The negative reports were beginning to snowball and soon the narrative became “Windows ME is a Disaster” and news stories were being published about the negative reaction to the operating system release, rather than the products’ features and benefits.

In response we implemented our crisis plan. We set up a central command center staffed 24 hours a day to respond to negative news reports and to highlight the positive ones. We reached out to reassure our well established media contacts and scrambled to provide product information to a whole new set of press targets. Within a few days we were able to stem the tide but Windows ME never really shook its reputation as the Windows “Mistake Edition”. It wasn’t until a year later, with the launch of Windows XP, that Microsoft was able to wipe the slate clean.

An after action review (internal post-mortem) revealed that a good deal of the negative reaction was due to confusion and inadequate preparation for Windows’ different target audiences. Windows ME was a consumer (not business) operating system with some cool pioneering features including Movie Maker, a much improved Media Player and the first version of the System Restore recovery utility. This was good stuff and we spent a good deal of time reaching out to the consumer press about it. But we hadn’t adequately or convincingly informed business and technical press. We knew that this product was not for them, but we failed to assure that they knew.

The Windows ME launch was a trivial crisis when compared with the potential loss of life and property from the “Millennium Bug” or the environmental damage from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster or the deaths from Odwalla’s E. coli outbreak. But my early experience as part of a crisis communications team left me with two valuable lessons: do everything you can to avoid a crisis and, just in case, make sure you have a plan!

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