Crisis Communications Shouldn’t Be A Crisis

Every organization at one point or another will face some sort of crisis. The level of crisis and how you react to it will ultimately determine if you weather the storm and come out the other end in decent shape or if the crisis will do lasting or permanent damage to your business. While most crises often come on unexpected and blind side you in some respects there are steps you can take to limit your exposure to crises and prepare yourself and organization for a crisis and response to it. Here are a few tips to make sure you are as prepared as you can be for when a crisis hits so that you and your organization can weather the storm and come out of the crisis in a positive light.

Develop your plan – Every organization, regardless of size, age or industry should have a crisis communications plan. This plan should clearly outline the person or persons who will speak for your organization should a crisis hit. The person(s) should know they are an ‘official spokesperson’ and be prepared to speak to the press, to employees or the public at large about the matter. Redundancies should also be put in place should one person not be available and so on. In the plan there should also be standard holding statements prepared that can be used if the press calls for comment before you are prepared to give one. Remember, not responding or saying no comment means the press can shape the story however they want because you haven’t told them otherwise. Don’t risk it. Have a standard holding statement prepared to give to a reporter to buy you time to prepare a response that helps the situation. Not having to figure out who is speaking once a crisis hits or what they will say will save valuable time and resources when you need to be concentrating on the crisis at hand.

Prepare, prepare, prepare – If you are an official spokesperson make sure you are comfortable public speaking. If you are timid or perceived as such, your message will come off as disingenuous or as if you are hiding something. Be comfortable speaking in public so your organization’s message is clear, concise and confident. Prior to speaking or releasing a statement make sure you and the rest of the organization’s leadership are in agreement with the strategy to handle the crisis, the communication around it as well as the potential consequences of the handling and communications. The more thought you can put into things ahead of times the better prepared you will be to handle the crisis.

Don’t bury your head – Like it or not you or your organization is involved in a crisis. If you choose not to deal with it, it does not mean it’s not happening. I remember a crisis when I worked in health care, a former physician that worked for our organization was arrested out of state for possession of child porn. The physician had not worked for us for a number of years and the charge was not during his employment with our organization. Yet, the press still called for comment. When I briefed executive leadership of the situation the COO immediately stated that they didn’t want to make a big deal of it since the circumstances didn’t directly involve our organization and we should ignore the request. She wanted to bury her head a pretend it wasn’t happening. I quickly responded,

“A former pediatrician we employed was arrested for child pornography. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to make a big deal of this, it is a big deal.”

Not responding or ignoring the request wasn’t an option. Yes, in no way were we directly involved but that does not mean we were free and clear. The press was going to call for comment since it was such a salacious story and we were the tie to the local community as the former employer. Working with leadership we crafted our statement and released it to the inquiring press. We also drafted and released a communication to our staff alerting them of the story and our response to it along with a script for our customer service agents to use should anyone call and inquire. The story broke with a flurry of comments online and on social media which we closely monitored and in a day or two was a distant memory. Had we not responded or prepared our staff to deal with the situation who knows how it might have gone.

Don’t ignore your staff –Regardless of whether the crisis you’re dealing with is internal or external to your organization, don’t ignore your staff. Keeping them informed so they are not blindsided by other employees, the general public or the press is vital to your crisis communication strategy. You do not want your employees finding out about things from the media. They are employees and should be privy to information before the public is so they do not feel alienated. You also do not want your employees ad libbing or speculating as to the circumstances of the situation. Keep them informed so you have a unified voice as to your organization’s message (by the way, this is good advice in general for employee communications).

Have a media policy – If you don’t already, you should establish a press/media policy and review it often with your staff. If you have new hire orientation or some sort of onboarding process, review your media policy as part of it. Staff should know exactly what to do if the media calls, or arrives onsite to your organization. They should also know that unless they are an official spokesperson that they should not speak to the press. What they might think is an innocent, off the record conversation with a member of the media actually could be tomorrow’s leading headline. Keep them informed as to what is happening during a crisis and at the end of every employee communication reiterate your media policy as a reminder.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to crisis communications. Of course I could not cover every aspect of it in just one article but there are some really good starting points to help you develop your strategy. In future articles I go further into depth when it comes to crisis communication and public relations in general. And when in doubt, call a PR professional that is proficient in crisis communications to advise and help you navigate the crisis and communications. These few steps alone can be the difference between successfully dealing with a crisis and doing irreparable damage to you or your organizations image.

A Little Bit About My Blog:
I write about a vast array of topics related to marketing, public relations, business development and business management. Sometimes the topic is very focused and my blog addresses very specific challenges with specific answers. While other times my blogs take a wider view of a topic or theory and are intended to make the reader think on a macro-level as opposed to providing specific answers. It’s like the proverb says: “Feed a fish to a hungry person you’ve fed them for a day. Teach them to fish you feed them for life.” The goal is not to give you the answers but to help you solve the challenges of your business through critical thinking. Either way, I hope my blogs elicit a reaction, good or bad. If good, we can compare notes and share stories of success. If bad, we can have a good old fashion debate. May the best debater win.

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