How to Prevent ‘What If’ From Becoming ‘What Now?’

No one likes to think about the “what if.” 

But if we learned anything after a year amidst a pandemic, it’s that planning for the “what if” is essential.  We invest so much human and financial capital in building our organizations’ identities, and then one story or social media post later, it can all go sideways.  What are the scenarios your organization might face?  Maybe it’s a glitch with product delivery or a customer relationship gone awry.  Maybe your workforce is changing or your CEO retiring.  Are you merging, divesting, launching, retrenching? 

There are a million possibilities, but whatever the change – positive or negative – the smart money is on those who get in front of the issue to control their own story.

Here are a few categories to consider when doing your own “what if” planning: 

Who do you need to tell?

Customers or clients?  Employees?   Vendors?  Donors and volunteers?  Your board?  Public officials?  The press?  The best way to figure this list out is to ask yourself whether there’s a downside to any of your constituents learning about your situation from someone other than you.  If there is, you need to talk to them first.

Make it a 1-day story, not a 7-day series.

When you let other people tell your story, instead of telling it yourself, you’re left to react to the news.  And that’s not easy when information is leaking out bit by bit.  Or the information is wrong or misinterpreted.  When you’re reacting, you’re not likely to provide the big picture all at once, which means you end up trying to correct or reshape the information over a longer period of time.  Instead of reacting to the news again and again, present the facts yourself and be the first to do it.  Even in a negative or potentially damaging , it’s better to own up, up front, on your terms, instead of letting the information take on a life of its own.  Plus, you can better manage the issue by providing context and a framework proactively so that the story can be reported and received fully and accurately – all at once.

Be fast, first and factual.

Being first and fast with your information should always be coupled with being right.  Falsehoods, whether accidental or purposeful, never ever help you manage an issue.  So follow your mom’s advice, and tell the truth.

Don’t wing it – ever.

If you don’t know the answer or don’t have the complete solution figured out, don’t wing it by speculating about what might happen.  It’s better to let people know what your path to the solution is, rather than guessing at what the outcome might be.  Then you can follow up with updates as needed.

Factor in the immediacy of social media.

Social media plays a range of roles in times of organizational change or crisis.  It might be the place where you first learn about a potential problem.  It’s likely the place where you’ll get a fast read on how others are judging your actions or inactions.  It’s also a tool to consider using proactively to implement a response.  Whether you’re active on social media – or not – monitoring for posts about your organization should be a given.  Knowing what to do if a post is negative or untrue should be determined well ahead of an in-the-moment experience.

Create an issues management plan.

Create a turn-key protocol so that all of the preliminary logistics can be established.  Who should be part of your Issues Management Team?  Do you know, specifically, how to get in touch with all of your important audiences quickly?  What is your social media policy for employees – and better yet, do they know what it is?  Are there people or other organizations of influence that you should know about and have relationships with in case you need their support?  What is the current perception of your organization in the marketplace and how would that factor into an issues management process?

How will you take on your next issue or change?  With some thoughtful, advance planning, you can be ready for the “what if’s” and protect the reputation you’ve worked so hard to establish.