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How to Draft a Winning Cross-Functional Team for Issues and Crisis Response

October 17, 2022

Issues and crisis response are the major leagues of public relations. High stakes scenarios can make or break reputations, and your organization’s response could make the record books or be lost to poor public relations history. While your stakeholders are likely to best remember how your organization reacted, the internal team behind the response is a determining factor in your success.

Expert analysis usually focuses on engaging stakeholders as part of an external communications strategy. However, it is equally important to understand how to bring internal partners together to create a winning team. In issues management and crisis scenarios, it is easy to overcrowd the number of voices in the room and call up too many internal stakeholders to help respond. While it is important to ensure you have a diversity of perspectives informing your response, the law of diminishing returns comes into play quickly if there are too many people. Too many decision-making roles causes a lack of clarity and muddles the ownership lanes—all to the detriment of an efficient and rapid organizational response.

How do you strike the right balance between sourcing enough knowledge and experience versus having too many people on the field? We recommend keeping a few basics in mind as you build and manage your team of cross-functional all-stars:

  • Create your lineup: Each member of your team should have a unique position. Assigning dedicated roles will help members of the team understand what their responsibilities are and are not, avoiding confusion in high-stress moments. You should also have a reliable bench of alternates from the various functions in case someone is out or unavailable when a crisis arises.
  • Understand nuances in your division: While each issue or crisis is unique in its own way, there are lessons to be learned from any response. Reviewing case studies from what other companies or organizations in your space have done in the face of similar issues may help you to glean insights into how similar external stakeholders might react. Members of your cross-functional team may also have a unique perspective into what specific stakeholders may want in these kinds of situations.
  • Build your game plan: It helps to have a crisis playbook that lays out who to call and when to activate them in the eventuality of a crisis scenario. Knowing the structure for a rapid response system and communicating it out in advance helps to fend off any questions about who is on first in any situation.
  • Practice makes perfect: You don’t need 10,000 hours of practice to ensure your team is ready to execute your crisis playbook. However, some sort of practice–via a tabletop exercise or virtual simulation like APCO’s emPOWER–will help your team to get a better feel for what’s expected of them in the heat of the moment, especially for those that aren’t as steeped in the crisis and issues world.
  • Know when to bring in your ringers: Your cross-functional team should include communications leaders from the key functions you’ll need to address in any scenario. While you may operate across issues with a tighter core team, specialists from these functions help to ensure you are covering the right bases.
  • Study the tape: An after-action report following a crisis response can also help your team understand what worked well and what didn’t, as well as how you can improve for the future. Ensure that all members of your cross-functional team–not just your core team—are read into the debrief so you can move forward on the same page, together. This will also help with any newcomers to the team, especially if key members of your cross-functional team move on to other roles.

There is unfortunately never an off-season for issues and crises. Building a strong cross-functional team today will help you prepare to react to any situation that may arise, at any time and from any place inside or outside of your organization.

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