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STRATEGY

How to Communicate in a Crisis

A guide to emerging with reputation intact after a crisis threatens your company

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Most business owners behave suspiciously like ostriches when it comes to the topic of crisis planning. Either they think nothing bad will ever happen to (or around) their business or they assume that whatever the crisis is, it will be so unexpected that planning won't do much good.

Wrong! Particularly in today's 24/7 world of communications, where Twitter means that you might find out about a problem FROM your customers or clients, being prepared to address a challenge quickly in a crisis is the key to maintaining trust. And though technology means that the ways you can communicate will continue to change, there are some hard and fast rules about communicating in a crisis that will always hold true.

While the traditional news media still plays a big role in a crisis – major newspapers set the agenda and nightly newscasts still reach a lot of people – the issue of who to communicate with, when, and how has become more nuanced. And it's certainly a LOT harder to hide problems then ever before (just ask any politician or sports figure who has ever tried to keep a romantic dalliance with someone other then their spouse a secret). In crisis communications, it makes sense to think like the Boy Scouts and always be prepared.

Dig Deeper: Flirting with Disaster

How to Communicate in a Crisis:  What's The Plan?

One of the best outcomes of thinking about a crisis before it happens is the chance to consider your company's strategy without the pressure of news choppers hovering over your facility.    
Every company should have a crisis communications plan that considers the following:

  • What could go wrong? You'll never think of everything, but this exercise is important because it helps the company understand what they will need from both a communications perspective and a business contingency planning perspective in the event of crisis. It also serves to educate your key leaders on what types of issues could turn into a true crisis requiring external communications.
  • Who's in charge? When a crisis hits, you don't want to waste time trying to figure out who should be involved in the response. And the roles and responsibilities of all members of the crisis team should be clear. In particular, who has final sign off on strategy, messages and timing should be agreed upon in advance.
  • What's the strategy? These days, transparency and immediacy are the two critical elements of any crisis response. But your company may have unique constraints that could impact how you respond strategically. Are you operating in a litigious environment that makes it difficult to issue public apologies?  Do you have a strong public brand that has to be protected at all costs? Some companies decide that they want to get ahead of bad news, controlling the timing, the message and the way they communicate about them. Others prefer a wait and see approach, where the organization is fully prepared to respond when it becomes clear the issue will go public, but wants to "run for luck" and see if they can minimize the issue.
  • Who are the spokespeople? Review your list of potential problems and figure out who would be the credible people within the organization to respond to those issues--with everyone from customers to the press. Then make sure they are TRAINED to communicate in high pressure situations. Even the most calm-under-fire CEOs can benefit from some crisis-specific communications training.

Dig Deeper: 8 Steps to Help You Develop a Disaster Plan

How to Communicate in a Crisis: What Are My Messages?

Not surprisingly, the foundation of any crisis response is the message you are communicating. When a crisis hits, the first thing you do is figure out what the facts are (or if you can't find the answers quick enough, identify a process for getting the facts). Then, you have to decide how much of those facts that you can communicate publicly (based on legal and other restraints). 

Among the messages that are invariably part of any good crisis response:

  • A succinct explanation of what went wrong
  • An expression of concern for the impact that the situation has on customers, employees, the general public, etc.
  • A sincere apology, if warranted (and don't let the lawyers talk you out of it!) and a sense that the company takes responsibilities for any missteps it may have made
  • A commitment to identifying the underlying factors that caused this situation to happen and addressing them
  • An expression of confidence that this situation does not reflect poorly on the company overall – but only if it's true; nothing's worse then many new shoes dropping (see Toyota)

It should go without saying that honesty is always the best policy, transparency creates trust, acting defensively won't win you any admirers and leaders earn respect when they are willing to publicly take their lumps. Most importantly, don't stonewall or refuse to provide information--earning yourself a lot of ill will. Almost always the public pressure becomes so intense companies eventually break down and offer some sort of response, but by that point the damage is done and even the best crafted public message rings hollow and appears forced.

Dig Deeper: When Scandal Knocks...

How to Communicate in a Crisis: Who is My Audience?

Crisis situations are often framed by media coverage, which means reporters are typically the first audience considered. But one of the advantages of the internet, e-mail, mobile phones, etc. is the capacity to communicate in direct ways to each of your audiences.

To take advantage of the technology, a little advance planning is required. By figuring out who your key audiences are in advance (typically they include employees, investors/board members, customers, opinion leaders in your community, elected officials, the press, etc.) you can make sure you have the vehicles in place to communicate.
 
Communications vehicles can include everything from in-person open forums for employees to webinars/video conferences if your operations are widespread. Both are easier to pull off if you have some history of holding them under normal circumstances and already have the mechanisms in place to make them happen.

In today's world, consumers are trained to go to an organization's website when news breaks (and news outlets often link to the websites in their online stories); make sure you can quickly update your website to include news and information about the current situation. Social media – your company's Facebook fan site ( you do have one, right?), twitter feed, etc. should also be updated. One of the best weapons in fighting reputational damage from a crisis is arming people with the facts and the web gives you an unfiltered way to provide the facts to the public.

Dig Deeper: How Would You Fix Tiger's Image?

How to Communicate in a Crisis: Dealing with the Media


Though the media may be the first to call, it's important not to let them set the agenda. How do you do that? 

  • Respond in a timely fashion. The longer you wait, the more time a reporter has to get the information they are looking for from other sources; then you are stuck correcting things. In a similar vein, if you are in a public "fight," try to get to the media first – that way you can frame the issue, not your opponent.
  • Give the reporter a clearly written statement. Included should be the facts, your response plan and any "emotional" element (regret, apology, concern, etc.). Even though this statement may not be quoted from directly, it grounds the reporter in your position.
  • If possible, provide a spokesperson. Though there are some situations in which putting the CEO in front of the firing squad doesn't make sense, in most cases individuals respect leaders who are willing to take responsibility in difficult situations. If the CEO or other senior leader can't be the spokesperson for legitimate reasons, consider deploying your communications person to respond to questions and provide a sense that the company is not afraid to face the situation head on.

In addition, remember the news coverage doesn't end when the interview does. Most print and broadcast outlets post stories online, which can be commented on by the general public. Monitor the comments, which will help you understand what information you need to clarify or communicate about proactively through non-press means.  And when friends of your company ask what they can do to help, encourage them to weigh in online with testimonials in your support.

Dig Deeper: Legal lemons, PR Lemonade

How to Communicate in a Crisis: Final Thoughts

Though we all hope a crisis never befalls our company, it's a good idea to build up a bank of goodwill – acting honorably and transparently, communicating a sense of your values and the benefits you offer your employees, customers and other key audiences, and showing a level of responsiveness on the small stuff. Doing so will help people forgive you more quickly when something goes wrong.

If you pair an existing communications approach that engenders trust with a solid crisis plan, you won't panic when something goes awry.  That invariably helps you communicate with more confidence, which is reassuring to your audience.

Last updated: Mar 31, 2010




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