Running a marathon and managing a crisis communication situation? It sounds like an oxymoron, I know. Marathons are long and are won by pacing yourself, and crisis situations happen fast and are won by responding promptly, right? Well, kind of. Here are five reasons why the two are much more alike than you think:
1. It’s all about preparation. You can’t just wake up on the day of a marathon and run all 26 miles if you’re not a runner — it’s almost anatomically impossible. The same is true with crisis comm situations. You can’t expect to resolve a crisis after you get that panicked phone call if you’ve never prepared any type of crisis communication plan. Just like runners go on practice runs, eat the right foods, and stay hydrated to prepare for their big race, crisis communication professionals need to engage in environmental scanning to know what’s going on in their industry, prepare communication plans, and have a team in place they can assemble on a moment’s notice.
2. You need a support team. Although runners are ultimately running those 26.2 miles by themselves, they usually have a support team in place to help them get to the finish. Maybe they’ve had running partners through their training. Maybe they have a friend who comes to every race. Maybe they have a spouse who cooks them pasta dinners after long runs. Whatever it is, having a support team in place is essential to their success.
Maybe no one will cook will cook us pasta dinners as public relations professionals, but we still need a team. This team should consist of the CEO/president and other C-suite executives, top communication officer, and legal counsel. Have a spokesperson trained and ready to deliver key messages with the team aware and supportive of those messages. It’s hard to assemble a truly supportive team the morning of a race, so just like runners identify a support team long before they strap on their sneakers, crisis communication professionals need to identify a support team long before the crisis breaks out.
3. Know where people are. You know those numbers runners pin onto themselves before they leave the finish line? Those numbers help identify individuals throughout the race. Most notably, they’re important at the finish line to determine a winner, but they’re also important for keeping track of each individual runner. If someone doesn’t show up, race officials will know they need to track down that runner and make sure they’re still on the course.
As for crisis communication professionals, you need contact information for your team, including home, office, and cell phone numbers so that you can assemble them at a moment’s notice. If you don’t have these numbers, you’ll have no way to contact important team members! Keep this information in an easily accessible place so it can be pulled out whenever necessary.
4. When it’s time to run, run! Typically, marathon runners prepare for races months, even years, ahead of time. So the moment that starting gun sounds, they are off and running because they know exactly what to do. They’re ready.
When crisis communication teams have spent time developing plans, assembling teams, and preparing media statements, they’re ready to go when a crisis occurs. One of the most important elements of strong crisis communication execution is to respond promptly. When the crisis occurs, start running! Yes, you may have to tailor your message to the specific situation and audience, but you should have a general idea of what types of messages you want to get out to the public quickly because you’re already prepared.
5. If you don’t prepare, you will be sorry. Did you know that beginning runners are advised to prepare 18 months before the day of their full marathon before undertaking the challenge? Eighteen months, as in a year and a half. Runners who don’t adequately prepare and train are at risk of pulling muscles, damaging ligaments, becoming severely fatigued, or worse. Needless to say, they will be hurting for a while.
Crisis communication is no different. If businesses and organizations haven’t prepared, they’re at risk for permanently damaging their reputations, customer relations, financial health, and more. Most businesses can’t just jump up, dust themselves off, and go on with business after a crisis — customers won’t let them. (BP, anyone?) They need to be prepare for a crisis and be ready to say “we’re sorry” — unless they want to meet their own sorry fate.
(As a disclaimer, I’ve never ran a marathon, but I hope to one day! In the meantime, I’ll stick with my 5K’s and 10K’s.)