Staying afloat in turbulent waters

From financial losses to security breaches, from weather events to management changes, we are reminded of the important need for communications management. Not just having a section in the business continuity plan on how to communicate during physical disasters, but having a well-prepared, comprehensive issues management plan – one with a strong focus on managing messages about sensitive issues.

Credit unions need to incorporate effective communication strategies as part of their business continuity plans. By doing so, they will be better able to weather the unexpected.

Batten down the hatches

Having an issues-management plan – some call it “crisis communications”– helps serve as a guide when quick decisions are necessary, helping to avoiding harmful mistakes. A sound plan also keeps you and your staff focused and ready to act when stress is high, time is short and resources are limited. Some communication issues to consider:

  • Issues identification – Determine what current or emerging issues could affect your credit union.  Gather information from sources such as the strategic plan, regulatory reviews, market research, and economic, technology and political trends. Assemble a team to discuss potentially damaging events that may occur.
  • Assessment – Once you’ve identified the issues that could affect your organization, it’s time to set priorities, assessing each identified issue. What’s the likelihood of an event? How serious would it be? Prioritize issues according to both their probability of occurrence and the severity of their impact.
  • Scenario planning – While you might not know the exact nature of a problematic event or when it will occur, it’s critical to outline how you would handle it. Scenario planning helps. For each likely and severe event, determine a base case for how your credit union might respond: messages, timing, audiences, and communications channels.
  • Audiences – Who are your key constituents – those groups that need to know what’s happening: members, employees, regulators? Who else has a stake in the issue: business partners, sponsor organizations?  Make a list of your key audiences and keep it updated. And don’t forget the media – they can be an important resource during crisis communications.
  • Communications timing – When a detrimental event occurs, it’s vital to determine the order of communications. Who should be told first? When should you tell your members? Is it really necessary to make an announcement? What happens if you keep it quiet? Rule of thumb: The more negative the event, the more likely it is to get out.
  • Message development and delivery – What is your organization’s position on the issue? What are the central messages (“company line”)?  What communication channels should be used and who should speak for the company? By laying out the details ahead of time, it will be easier to make adjustments for specific situations when an actual incident occurs.

Keep a life jacket handy

Even with the best of plans, managing communications during a negative event can quickly become overwhelming. Details might be changing rapidly and the opportunity for misinformation is high. Add to that heightened stress and anxiety throughout the organization, and it becomes even more important to remain calm and in control.

Turn to the media – Too often, early news coverage of an issue is filled with inaccurate information. This is largely due to a company’s inability – or unwillingness – to get news out quickly, along with a reporter’s job to find content for today’s 24-hour news cycle.

  • Speak quickly and honestly with the media. Doing so will help you control the message, increase the accuracy of coverage and reduce a reporter’s need to find “unnamed” sources.
  • Tell your story first. It’s always best to have information about a situation – both good and bad – come from you, before others provide speculative comments.
  • Avoid “no comment” responses. If you don’t know the answer or can’t respond to a reporter’s question, say so, and then follow up with the information when it becomes available.

Seek help from outside sources – Many times, assistance from outside parties can be beneficial during a company crisis or emerging issue. Public relations firms, legal counsel and other experts can help provide perspective – hard to do when you’re in the eye of a storm.  These outside sources also can help guide your plans, freeing staff for other pertinent responsibilities.

In our fast-paced, sometimes volatile financial environment, threats are always ready to surface. Including a well-designed issues management plan within the business continuity plan is a business best practice. None of us are immune to unplanned business crises, but having a framework for managing through them is indispensable.

Remember, the time to check that you have enough lifeboats is before the ship is sinking!


Margaret Blankers

Margaret Blankers

Margaret Blankers is President of Margaret J. Blankers Public Relations Group (MJB PR Group), which she founded in 2002 after more than 20 years’ experience in credit union communications. The ... Web: Details