He wears leather gloves and constantly smokes cigars. He is cool and calm even when in peril. A master of disguise, this chief tactician relishes the moment when he can say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Thanks to a recent film adaptation of a popular 1980’s TV show, old and young will recognize this description as the A-Team’s John “Hannibal” Smith.
So what can Hannibal teach PR pros? Certainly not lessons in fashion or in good health. But he can show us the importance of having a plan. Although his plans rarely turn out exactly as they were supposed to, they always seem to get his team out of any tough situation.
If only more communications professionals put the same emphasis on crisis and issues planning. Perhaps we would have fewer cases like Malaysia Airlines or the Sochi Olympics to point out during corporate media training sessions.
Sadly, most organizations still have not learned from these lessons and are not adequately prepared. Oftentimes the process of preparing for a crisis can be just as intimidating as the threat of crisis itself. It’s far more comfortable to develop proactive campaign strategies to support marketing and sales goals.
Really, getting started is the biggest hurdle. And just about every company that requires proactive PR should also have some level of crisis plan in place. Here are some tips from Hannibal for moving from stasis to crisis preparedness.
Before taking on a new mission, Hannibal always interviewed his potential clients to first understand what he was dealing with. He carefully reviewed any background intelligence that may have lent insight. Likewise, communications professionals must start by identifying the leadership and subject matter experts within the organization that best understand the structure and workings of the company. They should get to know them and their background while gaining an understanding of potential threats to the reputation of the company. Finally, they must gauge their ability to represent the company in times of crisis.
Build Your Playbook
Taking what he learned in his investigation, Hannibal applied that knowledge to building a detailed mission plan, laying out specific roles for his team. PR pros must take what they learned from discovery to build their response strategy. They must ensure it addresses the potential threats, the appropriate individuals to handle those threats and the proper communications channels to use.
Craft Your Messages
In the A-Team, Hannibal primarily depended on his team member, Face, to do a lot of his smooth talking. Nonetheless, coming up with the right story and talking points was a key to the A-Team’s success. While PR pros may not be able to have exact messaging for every possible threat, they should have a baseline of core messages they will apply to any type of crisis situation. They need to make sure their organization is aligned around these fundamental messages ahead of time which will make it far easier to adapt your key messages to any situation that may arise.
Evangelize within Your Organization
Hannibal always built consensus and understanding with his team before engaging his plan. While he occasionally had to bypass tactical objections of his team member, B.A. Baracus, his team was usually strategically aligned before engaging in a mission. Communications pros must make sure all company leadership understands and approves of the strategy. They must also make sure the entire company is well aware of the company’s media policy and protocol. Even employees not involved in the organization’s official communications need to know how to direct media inquiries and how to conduct themselves on social media in times of crisis.
Hannibal’s team rarely went into a mission without proper preparation. They would sometimes build the equipment they needed and simulate their mission before going into action. The same goes for crisis preparation. Even if a company’s spokespeople have been trained in the past, they will need regular practice to ensure they are prepared to handle a media crisis. They should practice various scenarios and should receive real “hard ball” questions that will prepare them for pressure cooker situations.
Depending on the size and culture of an organization, this process could take a couple of months to complete. So make Hannibal proud and get that plan together before your company becomes another case study in crisis communications.
What steps do you take to prepare against a PR crisis? Leave a comment below, or tweet us at @RHStrategic with the hashtag #RHetoricBlog. We’d love to hear from fellow PR professionals and journalists alike.
RH Strategic is the PR firm for a hyper-connected world, delivering integrated media, social & digital strategies for technology, healthcare, and public sector markets.