Financial fire drills: Protecting the brand during crisis

Ongoing monitoring, developing good plans and practicing are vital elements to mitigating risk in times of stress.

By Martha Bartlett Piland, CFMP

Media crises can come in many forms, from a mistake made by the institution or its employees, a natural disaster, geopolitical unrest, cyber attack or an industry crisis like the 2023 bank failures. They are always unexpected and they always demand a swift response.

Like first responders and kindergarten teachers, expert communications professionals have a three-part approach to readiness:

  • Systems are monitored 24/7.
  • There’s an evacuation and response plan.
  • The plan is practiced regularly and at unexpected times.

For many financial brands, practice is what’s often. While most marketers have a plan and monitoring in place, many fall short when it comes to running the drills. But practice makes perfect.

Repeated practice makes for perfection in the heat of the moment. The fire drills children practice in grade school make the desired behavior second nature. When the fire alarm sounds, they calmly walk out the door along the prescribed path. They line up outdoors in the proper place so the teacher can make sure everyone is accounted for, then they wait for the all-clear to return to their seats. There is no confusion. No one has to figure out what to do.

The best practice isn’t one-and-done. It’s a series of role-plays with your spokesperson(s) in front of pretend reporters and real pressure. Here are five steps to build a solid practice regimen:

1. Set up a mock news conference space

Ideally, the practice takes place in a room that would be an actual setting if you needed to stage a press conference. Step back and evaluate the space to be sure the optics are right for a meeting location:

  • Select a room that’s that’s easily accessible from the entrance so there’s not a spectacle created from reporters trooping in.
  • Ensure sound is adequate and not easily disrupted by outside noise or music piped in.
  • Notice surroundings to ensure the brand is well represented with a classy logo graphic, correct colors and furnishings that are in good repair.
  • Ensure the room is well-lit. Set up additional lights if necessary so the speaker looks fresh and shadow-less (especially under the eyes).
  • If it has potential to be live-streamed, be sure all tech is in order.
  • Bonus points for having a microphone mult box for reporters to access. (And “mult box” is really what it is called.)

2. Recruit sample reporters with prepared questions

  • Use people from your team—including other departments—to role play as reporters. Be sure to include interns. They will bring a younger age bracket perspective from the news media they follow.
  • Assign different personas for your reporters to play, such as friendly reporters, muckrakers, bloggers, local news anchors, industry writers, etc.
  • Give your reporters the crisis scenario and some scripted questions, but also allow them leeway within their roles.

3. Prep your spokespersons

Inform them of the sample crisis and share with them the prepared FAQs and messaging. Let them know you’ll be running through without stopping as if it’s real. Give them some coaching about:

  • Watching out for fidgets and “um,” and “so” fillers
  • Never repeating negative questions, such as: “It’s not true that we just evict people … ”
  • Having a strong, open physical posture and being aware of gestures and body language
  • Where their eye contact should be directed
  • Dress code

4. Record the practice sessions

Follow a standard news conference agenda using one of your planned crisis scenarios. Run through without stopping for about 15-20 minutes. Follow the same agenda with a different crisis if you’re preparing multiple potential spokespersons.

5. Debrief

Watch the recorded sessions and critique them right away. This gives everyone a chance to see what they did well and what should be refined about their delivery. Conduct a few extra run-throughs to solidify the improvements.

No one is immune. The communications team should also have surprise practices on occasion. Make sure they know where to easily find the written protocols. Check to be sure the key contact list is current. Be certain everyone knows their roles.

Be prepared and be the hero. When a crisis hits, winging it or attempting to develop quick responses on the fly often makes matters worse.

Ongoing monitoring, developing good plans and practicing are vital elements of avoiding or mitigating risk. Bank communications teams who can spring into action with confidence and credibility when the situation calls for it will reassure the public, customers, investors and employees—and protect the reputation of their financial brand.

Martha Bartlett Piland, CFMP, is president and CEO of BANKTASTIC®, a marketing agency that helps financial organizations build love and loyalty, and offers a special focus on millennial audiences. She’s a national speaker on branding, marketing, business development and advertising and has served on three bank advisory boards. Martha is a regular source for financial reporters. Her second book, Beyond Sticky, is available at all major booksellers.