Expect the Unexpected: Three Essentials for Communicating During a Crisis

Would you be ready if a crisis occurred at your company?  It wouldn’t have to be a major occurrence – just any unexpected event that disrupts your business.  Are you prepared?

Crisis planning has become a necessity in our digital world, where even small incidents can go viral, shattering company reputations virtually overnight.  But a crisis plan is incomplete without a communications component. When a company is in the middle of a crisis, communication often takes a back seat to action, and that can do as much – or more – damage as the crisis itself.

We have written previously on crisis communications planning.  Here are three essentials for communicating during a crisis:

  1. Don’t delay in communicating the problem. It’s the response – or more likely, the lack of response – to a crisis that causes the situation to escalate into an even bigger problem.  Any delay in responding, or even a tepid response, can add fuel to the fire.
  2. Show concern for those affected. It’s important to show concern for those affected – whether they are employees, customers, or the community.  To quote former President Theodore Roosevelt, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
  3. Be honest about the extent of the crisis. When a crisis occurs, you may not have all the facts at your disposal right away.  However, depending on who is affected, you will have to make some kind of initial statement and updates as new information is available.  What’s most important is to be honest about the extent of any damage and what steps you are taking to address the crisis.

How you communicate during a crisis should be an integral part of your crisis planning – especially if your organization is high profile, operating or moving dangerous materials, or providing products or services directly to consumers.

Communicating well can make damage control much easier.

Posted by Margot Dimond.

 

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Your Crisis Communication Plan

Do you have a crisis communication plan?  Crisis planning is essential for any company or organization – but especially for one providing products or services directly to consumers.  With social media, small incidents can go viral, making company reputations one step away from shattering.

Sometimes it’s the response – or lack of response – to a real or perceived problem that causes the crisis.  Any delay in responding, or even a tepid response, can add fuel to the fire.  It’s important to show concern for those affected – whether they are employees, customers, or bystanders.  (Think of what happened to Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP, after his initial response to the Gulf oil spill.)

Having a plan already in place makes damage control much easier.  With the understanding that specifics will change with each type of crisis, here is a basic overview of the essential elements of a crisis communication plan:

1.  Have a Crisis Communication Team.  The team should include key people in the organization who can develop a plan of action and decide on the spokespersons in case of an event.  Everyone on the team should have – and regularly update – a management roster with every type of contact information.  The crisis team should meet on a regular basis to keep everyone in a state of readiness.

2.  Identify Designated Spokespersons.  The main spokesperson should always include the CEO or someone of equal authority, plus anyone in a management position in the area where the crisis occurred.  All designated spokespersons should have media training with an emphasis on crisis communication.  Sending someone in front of a bank of television cameras without this type of preparation can backfire – even with the best of intentions.

3.  Establish a System of Communicating with Employees, Clients and Other Stakeholders.  The system could include email alerts, an online social network platform for web-based crisis communication or even a special crisis web page.

4. Designate a Media Center.  The site for media interviews should be some distance from the crisis communication office, which may be a hub of activity.  Depending on the nature of the crisis, policies and procedures should be set for media access to people involved in the crisis.

5.  Gather the Facts.  As soon as possible, the team should gather all of the facts surrounding the crisis and issue a prepared statement to the media.  They should also release new facts as they are confirmed.

6.  Establish the Message and Key Talking Points and Prepare the Spokespersons. A crisis situation is stressful; this is not the time to “wing it” with the media. Before doing interviews, spokespersons should be rehearsed on the message, key talking points and  questions that could be asked.  There will always be information that cannot be rehearsed, but it is important to be as prepared as possible.

7.  Monitor Media coverage.  Consistently monitor both online and offline media coverage throughout the crisis to make sure your message is being communicated accurately.  If not, you may have to adjust your strategy and messaging.Posted by Margot Dimond

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The Importance of Being Silent

Two things happened this morning that made me think about our new “very connected” world.  The first was a (thankfully, positive) discussion with a journalist about something that had happened years ago, but that is still present on the Web.  “Nothing ever goes away anymore,” he said.  So true.

The second was an incident of someone I knew, planning to forward an outraged response to an email she had received, but accidentally sending her response to the original sender instead.  Ouch!

In the first instance, it does amaze me how a simple Google search of my name produces items from jobs and volunteer activities long forgotten by me – but not by the Web. In the second instance, who hasn’t meant to forward an email with a comment to a friend or business associate, yet accidentally sent it to the originator?

We have a tendency to think that famous people – actors, politicians, media figures – are the only ones who have to worry about this.  After all, they have such a large audience, and in many cases, a wrong phrase or embarrassing video gone viral can put the brakes on their careers.

But we all have audiences we care about, and we should be mindful that what we do and say may become public.  Obviously, we should behave well anyway; but a slip in demeanor nowadays can have wide-ranging and long-lasting consequences.

As public relations counselors, we’re often tasked with encouraging our clients to communicate – to tell their story, present their message and respond quickly and clearly in a crisis.  But we now have to add a caution to our communication trainings.  After all, anything you say publicly “can and will be used,” will never be forgotten, and may define your forever.

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A reputation is a terrible thing to lose

In the past several hours, the news of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s reversal of its decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screenings has saturated the web. People have been weighing in left and right – literally – with opinions on both the original and subsequent decisions.  However, if there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s that the organization’s reputation has taken a serious hit.

Komen is one of the best-known charities in the world.  Its ubiquitous pink ribbon is not only worn by individual supporters, it’s displayed on numerous consumer products.  Its Race for the Cure is a signature event that supporters of women’s health have been proud to participate in.  But the decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood’s screening projects put them squarely into the middle of a political fight, causing a huge backlash.

This could have been prevented if Komen had followed these simple public relations rules:

Consult your PR counsel.  Although an established charity, Komen made a rookie mistake by not fully considering the public relations ramifications of its original decision.   You have to wonder:  Were PR people even in the room?  Any competent public relations counselor would have taken them through the various scenarios of what could happen and counseled them in advance.

Respond immediately.  Predictably, the news of Komen’s decision flooded the web, and its critics dictated the terms of debate.  Instead of getting in front of the story, Komen waited 24 hours to post a response online and another day before doing any media interviews to try to explain their decision.

Know your message and stick with it.  In their comments, Komen executives gave three different reasons for their decision, making it look like either they didn’t have a reason, or they were covering up the real reason.

Have a crisis plan in place.  Perhaps because the Komen Foundation has previously had nothing but positive media coverage, its executives didn’t think crisis planning would be necessary.  But a crisis plan is like home insurance; you hope you never have to use it, but it’s important to have.

However things turn out, it’s almost a given that the organization will spend a fortune on public relations now to repair the damage that could have been prevented much less expensively.

Sadly, it may take years to do so.

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