The N-word Redux – how message maps help manage high profile disasters

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Firestorm encourages thought leadership across a variety of industries. We are pleased to share insights from guest author, Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR. Dr. Fleck is the Assistant Professor in Communication and Media Studies at Ohio Northern University. With a career spanning various sectors, she provides a unique perspective backed by experience in business, politics, government, non-profit, and higher education. Read Dr. Fleck’s previous article, Is your Oxytocin showing? How trust matters in a crisis


In a recent blog post, I discussed the importance of planning for potential executive leadership departures and its resulting fallout. In that post, I highlighted the recent dismissal of a Netflix executive and his use of the N-word. Just a few weeks later, another high-profile executive resigned as chairman of the board of the company he founded for doing the same thing. Papa John’s founder, John Schnatter, has resigned as chairman of the board after he admitted to and apologized for using the N-word in a recent conference call.

Related: Texas Instruments CEO resigns on Code of Conduct violation

While these two specific events were not likely detailed in their respective corporate crisis scenarios, executive impropriety in general should be. In today’s media landscape, leaders are under close scrutiny for their behavior both on the job and in their private life. And, because planning for a potential executive misstep is not only awkward, but inherently stressful, many crisis communicators avoid it altogether. Unfortunately, doing so only puts more stress on the eventual handling of an event.

Message Maps
One tool to help control an event such as the one Netflix and Papa John’s faced, is to develop and deploy a series of message maps. A message map is a set of pre-written statements that form a roadmap to manage communication in a crisis. These maps contain detailed, prioritized, and organized responses to anticipated questions or concerns surrounding any issue. Of course, the key concept here is to create them in advance.

Message maps help organizations manage communication in several ways. First, they allow organizations to be nimble and quickly responsive to a variety of stakeholders – not just the media. Second, the creation of message maps require that necessary documents and supporting information be collected and archived for quick access, saving both time and resources. Finally, it provides structure to communications during an unplanned and risky situation, which can reduce missteps and mistakes.

Developing messages
There’s a myriad of processes organizations use to develop external and internal messaging. Ideally, message mapping for crisis communication is a team endeavor. Often the messaging process is delegated to the communications specialist who drafts content and then circulates it through various approvers. This certainly is a reasonable approach, but a better one is to convene all subject matter experts in a room at one time to lay out all possible viewpoints, ideas and, crucial concerns.

This doesn’t mean an organization can, or should, do this in one day. In fact, good crisis planning is ongoing and is updated regularly. It also doesn’t mean ALL possible scenarios can, or should, be outlined at one time. Taking the process issue by issue allows a team to bring in specific experts such as IT, finance, or facilities when necessary and not tie those folks up when discussing issues that don’t require their level of expertise.

The mapping process
When it comes to crises and crisis messaging, one size does not fit all. This is where the mapping process comes in. Mapping is simply a classification system to prioritize messages both in time and by audiences. For example, early in a crisis one message will be used to respond to media inquiries, a slightly different response for employees and another for boards of directors. As more details become available, the messaging changes. As the crisis is resolved, the follow-up messaging comprises another evolution.

A basic example
A message map example:

Firestorm Message Mapping - Home Bases Graphic

Depending on the audience, the messages will take on different emphasis and may include more or less information. For example, employees may be reminded in detail about the company’s code of conduct and how to report an action if they are witness to it. For the media, a single, simple statement incorporating all the key messages may be sent. For the Board of Directors, a more detailed explanation of what, who, how, and when the incident occurred along with an outline of the process for acting may be necessary. If this is an ongoing crisis, the process repeats with the development of further messaging.

Professional woman headshot

Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR, Ohio Northern University Assistant Professor of Public Relations

A final note
Author and management guru, Alan Lakein said, “planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” Doing so and utilizing available tools like message maps can help an organization successfully manage a crisis before it even occurs.

About the Author: Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR

Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR is an assistant professor in communication and media studies at Ohio Northern University. She has more than 25 years experience in private business, politics, government, non-profit and higher education. In addition to teaching, she is the principal of KRF Consulting working with clients in a wide range of industries. Her research interests include crisis communication and political communication.

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