‘Crisis communications’ can be a term which puts the fear of God into people – seasoned PR professionals and experienced CEOs alike. In reality, the principles of communicating in a crisis are very simple and require not a degree in communications, but simply a degree of common sense.
Put yourself in the shoes of those affected by an issue or crisis, big or small, and consider what you’d want to know and hear. What would reassure you? What would make you feel acknowledged and understood? What would update and inform you?
Act quickly and get your facts right
Firstly, timing is critical. Ideally a response should be issued as swiftly as possible – whilst ensuring that all of the facts have been ascertained, double-checked and confirmed. A vacuum provides fertile ground for speculation, mud-slinging, misunderstanding and long-term reputational damage. Equally, a speedy but inaccurate or ill thought-out statement can be just as problematic and damaging; decision makers and key stakeholders should understand that accuracy is essential and time is of the essence.
Plan ahead Planning effectively in advance for a crisis situation is well worth the investment in time and, if required, external expertise. You should consider: what processes would need to be put in place; what are some of the key messages you might need to share; which platforms and channels will you need to use internally and externally to ensure control and consistency of message; who will lead decision making and message sharing; who will be your spokesperson / people – and are they trained and equipped to speak to the media, if required. Being able to activate a pre-prepared plan of action can save valuable time and ensure clarity of approach.
Take ownership In an ideal world, any response to a crisis situation should come from an individual – the most senior, appropriate spokesperson, ideally the chair or CEO – and not be attributed to a faceless organisation or brand. In order to have a positive impact and start to rebuild trust, your response needs to be credible, convey compassion and demonstrate a degree of ownership, all of which need a human face and name.
Show you care The most important thing to communicate is understanding and empathy – whatever the crisis. It’s not always possible to take full accountability or shoulder the blame, legal advice, for example, might preclude this as an option. But it should always be possible to make it clear that you care, that you know and understand the issue at large and that you are doing something urgently to resolve or redress it. Where possible and appropriate, a genuine apology is the best starting place.
Don’t forget to listen Once a crisis hits, it’s critical that you monitor how and where it plays out. In order to respond in the right way, at the right time and on the right channels, you need to know what’s being said. It can be tempting to shy away from the full extent of any media or social media storm, but it’s only by listening, reading and assessing the situation that you can take sensible decisions about how best to respond.
Set up a crisis hub Once in crisis mode, it can be very helpful to gather together the people best placed to help resolve it; this might include your CEO, chair, comms expert and other key decision makers. Don’t involve anyone who isn’t absolutely necessary – too many views will just cause confusion and delay. Where practical, having everyone you need together in one physical place at the same time to review, discuss, debate and agree the approach and action required is far more efficient and effective than complicated email chains, endless conference calls and hastily arranged meetings and allows for a consistent and focussed approach. Get together as frequently as necessary for as long as it takes to resolve the issue.
What can go wrong? With all of this in mind, why is it that many organisations handle a crisis ineffectively?
Sometimes it’s down to a lack of planning or a sense of complacency. Too often, in reality, key decision makers fail to take expert communications advice on board. In a multi-stakeholder environment, it can be very difficult to secure consensus – especially if a blame game is ensuing behind the scenes – and therefore delayed and badly watered down, anonymous statements are frustratingly the end result.
In these instances, everyone loses. The company’s reputation is damaged, those directly affected are angered and dismayed and the public at large are left confused and misinformed.
The key is to plan, prepare and, most importantly, get buy in at the highest possible level. Depending on your company or brand, a crisis may seem unlikely but in developing your communications plans for every eventuality you can hopefully mitigate and manage whatever issues might come your way.