Regardless of your industry or business, it’s hard to prepare for every possible crisis – honestly, it’s impossible. While a good crisis communication strategy should address known risks inherent to your business, you’re only human and need to have a more universal plan to jump-start left-field situations (it’s basically Darwinism for practitioners).
Is it actually a crisis?
This might seem obvious, but it’s critical for practitioners to understand that not every issue is or will become a crisis. A crisis occurs unexpectedly, it demands urgency, and it places your organization at risk of permanent reputational damage. These features are also unique to situations that are often out of an organization’s control or are the result of external threats, which may or may not be known.
While many situations may seem intimidating and urgent, if they don’t check off the criteria above, there’s a good chance you can handle them in a less urgent, more strategic manner.
If you’re not first, you’re last
So, you’re in the fire… it’s hot, and you need to figure out how to put it out. At this point, you probably have a laundry list of things to do. Don’t worry, you’ll get to them, but there’s something you need to do first – address the situation and explain what’s going on to reassure stakeholders. This can be difficult, especially if there’s blame on your organization, but it’s your responsibility to tell as much of the truth as possible before others can speculate a different narrative. This practice will mitigate long-term damage from rumours, inaccurate reporting and a perception that your organization has something to hide.
As quickly as possible, craft a statement that is simple, accurate and specific to the situation. Try to identify the what, when and, if relevant, who. Always acknowledge whether anyone is in danger and never place blame outside of your organization unless you can prove, with 100 per-cent certainty, that it had nothing to do with the matter at hand. This first statement isn’t going to tell the entire story, which is okay. It’s also okay to address uncertainty and acknowledge what you don’t know. Don’t worry, there will be opportunities to provide more detail as you find out more information.
In being the first to provide accurate information about the situation for your organization, media and interested parties will look to you for answers. This allows you some control over the flow of credible information to, ideally, maintain a factual narrative. Ensure you indicate when you will release information moving forward to minimize media inquiries between announcements.
Keeping the fire under control
Depending on the scope and uncertainty of the crisis, you may be under pressure for days or even weeks. That’s why it’s essential to effectively manage the situation and take control as early as possible. Following your initial messages, you should focus on several things:
1. Gather and provide background information regularly.
- Try to answer how or why the crisis happened, what you’re doing to resolve it and what you’re doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
2. Monitor traditional and social media channels.
- Acknowledge and correct any misinformation whenever possible.
- Listen to stakeholders concerns and address their issues in future communication materials.
3. Prepare materials for all possible scenarios.
- When there is still uncertainty about the outcome of a crisis, craft statements to address likely outcomes to save time later.
4. Distribute communication as effectively as possible to maximize impact.
- Media and stakeholders view your organization’s owned media channels as a highly credible source of information. You don’t always need a news conference.
In the end, stakeholders want to see that you’re doing your best to address and handle the situation. Leaving them in the dark will be your downfall. Yes, if the crisis is a result of negligence or sinister intentions, it’s going to be a much harder sell. But, honesty and transparency are the only acceptable courses of action if your organization has any hope of recovering from reputational damage.