So you didn’t create a crisis communications plan, or you did but you never anticipated this particular issue. It happens to the best of us. What do you do now?
- Get to the Bottom of It.
There are three key questions to ask immediately, the answers to which will form the basis of your communications messaging:
- What happened?
- How did it happen?
- What are we doing to ensure this won’t happen again?
My favorite definition of Public Relations is “doing the right thing and taking credit for it.” Crisis communications is the flip side of that coin: if your organization has somehow stepped sideways, you should be honest with yourself and your publics about what went wrong, how it went wrong (despite the policies and procedures you have in place to prevent it), and what you’re doing to ensure it won’t happen again.
- Keep the Lights On.
Yes, a crisis has hit. But in most cases, business goes on. You still need to address the ongoing, day-to-day needs of your employees and customers. If you don’t, you’ll add more damage to the situation and your reputation.
It is important to operate thoughtfully and respectfully, especially if the crisis had a significant human impact (injury or loss of life, for instance). But have a plan to get back on-track and keep the majority of your team focused on operating the business.
- Define Roles & Responsibilities.
So your operations and client-facing teams are keeping the business running. Who needs to be at the center of the issue response? If you don’t define roles and responsibilities, well-intentioned team members will bump into each other while other important activities are inadvertently ignored completely.
A few of the important roles to fill include:
- Communications team lead -- this person coordinates getting answers to questions, drafting written media materials, fielding requests from the press, and monitoring coverage
- Spokesperson -- the only individual who should be speaking publically, this person should have experience with on-camera interviews; you may choose to have a back-up, but limit the number of people allowed to comment to 1-2
- Social media lead -- monitors all of your organization’s social media assets (and executives’ personal accounts as appropriate) and takes control of posting across all channels; stays engaged with audiences while following the communications strategy defined by the communications team lead
- Crisis team liaison -- keeps the lines of communication open between the communications team and the folks on the front line of the crisis; answers questions and provides updates on the situation on a regular basis
Nature abhors a vacuum. If your key publics know about your crisis but you aren’t sharing details, they’ll fill in the blanks themselves. Employees will rely on the grapevine, and reporters will fill airtime with “man on the street” interviews, getting as close as they can to the truth you aren’t sharing.
Communication is the key to maintaining control of the discussion. A few tips:
- Be clear. Don’t use legal or scientific jargon.
- Be concise. Don’t ramble on.
- Be accurate, and only share what you know to be true. Don’t hypothesize, don’t guess, and don’t talk about anything that isn’t confirmed. If you don’t know, say so, and commit to getting the answer.
- Be honest. Lying and “spinning” will be found out, and you’ll suffer more for it.
- Don’t Panic. Get Help.
Keep a cool head, and don’t let emotions take over. This is where tapping external resources helps -– third parties aren’t as emotionally tied to the situation as your internal team, and experts who’ve been through similar events with other clients can bring a breadth of expertise your team just doesn’t have. These external resources could include attorneys, PR professionals versed in crisis communications, and specialized subject-matter experts (e.g., diversity experts, union-relations specialists, etc.).
Finally, once the smoke clears, develop a crisis communications plan. If you survived your first crisis shooting from the hip, count your blessings –- and don’t press your luck. There are lots of resources that can step you through the basics.