Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is an international coach, trainer, author and professional speaker, who is widely regarded as an expert in crisis communications and media issues. For 15 years, he worked in print, radio and television as a front line journalist, on the scene of every type of disaster imaginable. His affiliate reports have been seen around the world on NBC, CBS, CNN, and the BBC.
Following the events of September 11th, he was commissioned to write the crisis communication plan for the Internal Revenue Service and its 800 offices across America. His plans are also used by the Library of Congress, the U.S. Army Missile Defense Command, city, state and county governments, international corporations, national retailers, national and global non-profits, hospitals, and numerous schools and universities.
Gerard has a B.A. in Journalism from Louisiana Tech University. He holds the Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation from the National Speakers Association and is also a Fellow of Environmental Communications from the Institute of Environmental Communications at Loyola University New Orleans, where he is a member of Loyola’s adjunct faculty.
Elizabeth Venafro: What advice can you give organizations and institutions about communicating effectively
with stakeholders in crisis situations, such as the pandemic?
Gerard Braud: During any crisis, it is critical to manage the expectations of your stakeholders. Tell them the truth. Tell them the ugly, honest truth. Tell them what they can do to take responsibility and achieve a better or safer outcome for themselves.
This holds true before a crisis, when crisis communications can be used to manage expectations. For example, before a hurricane, stakeholders can be informed of the difficulties they will face if they are hit with a hurricane. Not every storm will kill you, but it can make your life miserable for days and weeks after it has passed when you have no electricity, air conditioning, water, refrigeration, etc. Reminding stakeholders of their loss of creature comforts can help inspire evacuations and contingency planning.
Elizabeth Venafro: What infrastructure should organizations and institutions have in place for ongoing communications with stakeholders through the duration of the pandemic and future crisis situations?
Gerard Braud: I have always been a fan of having a library of pre-written statements that are pre-approved. These are detailed templates that you can write on a sunny day in order to use them quickly on your darkest day. One message serves all audiences and stakeholders, i.e., employees, customers, community, the media, etc.
The mistake organizations make is believing that they can sit in front of a blank computer screen and compose a perfect message during a crisis. By the time someone writes draft one, then endures the pains of the executive approval process, then writes draft two and approval two, valuable time has been lost. Often, it takes an organization three to four hours to post an official message after a crisis has happened. That is too long. Social media and speculation by the news media and stakeholders has filled the information void with speculation and misinformation. Every organization must be able to post an initial message within one hour of the onset of the crisis, with a goal to be as fast as social media. You can’t be that fast during a crisis if you haven’t done the bulk of the work before the crisis.
Elizabeth Venafro: What research and planning can be done to prepare for crisis situations similar to the pandemic in the future?
Gerard Braud: There are five steps that every organization should take to be fully prepared to effectively communicate in a crisis:
1. The crisis management team should meet once a month to conduct a Vulnerability Assessment to identify situations that could lead to a crisis. This meeting can help eliminate some potential crises, while allowing the organization to prepare a response for the situations that cannot be eliminated.
2. Every organization should have a living crisis communications plan. It must be detailed enough and specific enough to tell the crisis communications team each step they must take, who specifically does each task, how fast the task must be completed, and it must have directions so simple and clear that anyone who can read would be able to execute the plan. "Living" means that it is updated on a regular basis. No plan should be static.
3. Fast, effective crisis communication is only achieved when there is a library of pre-written and pre-approved statements. Organizations should expect to have 75 to 150 different templates, depending upon the organization. When something new is identified during a Vulnerability Assessment, that is the time to add a new template.
4. Spokespeople should be trained once a year. Whether a spokesperson is talking to the media or a group of employees, no one should speak unless they have proper training. During a crisis, the spokesperson should also be taught how to properly read and deliver the pre-written statement, and how to answer questions after the statement is read. This is hard; really hard. One wrong word can significantly damage an organization’s revenue, reputation, and brand. Don’t make your crisis worse by having an untrained spokesperson.
5. Drills are critical. A drill allows you to test your team, test your plan, and test your spokespeople. A drill provides a safe opportunity to mess up in private, so you don’t mess up in public during a real crisis.
Elizabeth Venafro: What role can technology play in crisis communications?
Gerard Braud: Technology has the ability to speed up the communications process. However, subscribers of the technology need to use it on a regular basis so there is no learning curve during the crisis. A crisis communications drill is a perfect time to test your technology.
Additionally, your crisis communications plan must have detailed information about when to use the technology, how to use it, and who specifically is assigned the task of using it.
Getting organizations to adopt technology is often a challenge because they fear they are purchasing a subscription to something they may never use. This is the wrong way to think about a subscription service. I always tell people that they should think of crisis communications planning like an umbrella. You don’t buy an umbrella because you hope it rains today. You buy an umbrella in case your sunny day turns ugly. Believe me, the same people who question the expense today, will thank their lucky stars that they have it when they need it.
Failure to communicate accurate information in a timely manner can damage an organization’s revenue, reputation and brand. In some cases, failure to communicate before, during, and after an event can lead to the loss of life.
Reaching Your Stakeholders
Do you know how best to reach each individual within your community? Have you prepared messages for each channel? An emergency notification system, such as Omnilert, can employ multiple channels — an Omnimodal approach — to guarantee the message is received. We created a checklist to aid in your emergency planning.
Download the Omnimodal Checklist