No one likes to think about an impending calamity. Yet for many companies, it is not a matter of if disaster will occur, but when. Having a solid crisis communication plan in place does two things: (1) prepares you for any situation; and (2) guides you through the process. Nothing good comes out of not being prepared. Short-sided statements made, or actions taken, may cause regret later—or more damage. A smart game plan makes communication seamless when dealing with a crisis.
What Defines a Crisis?
Crises, of course, are relative and unique to each organization. A public-focused or -facing company may endure a fire, a theft, a robbery, a death, or an employee being harmed or doing harm. (“Our store got robbed and there’s a TV crew out front.”) A larger organization may encounter a crisis related to finances, technology, customer service, the organization itself or public perception. These days, COVID-related issues can be a crisis. No matter the crisis, the same rules apply.
What is Crisis Communication?
Crisis communication includes the information disseminated by an organization to address a crisis affecting their customers and/or the organization’s reputation.
When developing a crisis communications plan, it is important to keep it relatively simple and to the point. No one wants to be in the middle of a crisis and have to sift through a plan that is too long or too difficult to understand.
How to Create a Crisis Communication Plan
1. Identify spokespersons.
One way to simplify the process is to identify key spokespersons and make it clear to your entire company who those people are. These are the only people who should be speaking to media, stakeholders, employees, etc. in a time of a crisis. Develop a process internally on reaching these spokespeople in case there is an inquiry.
2. Determine a protocol.
It goes along with “having a spokesperson,” but takes it a step further. Employees and representatives of an organization must all be on the same page. No one should speak out of turn. Things will happen quickly; but people must feel empowered to say, “I don’t know,” or “I need to find out,” or “I’m not going to speculate” when approached for interviews or commentary by members of the media or others. And they must be aware: “A reporter is standing here asking me a question. Who do I need to get to talk to them, if not me?” Beyond identifying a spokesperson, “how do I respond if I’m not the spokesperson?”
3. Keep the principals out of the flurry, if possible.
Sometimes, this won’t be possible. It is a matter of discretion. It’s best to use your leader when the time is right—to make an impact; not get caught up in the details. Someone else acting as a representative for the principal shields him or her from direct queries, housekeeping items, and offers an organizational “voice” that will be important (think, White House Press Secretary). Plus, it keeps the principal out of the spotlight as much as possible so that the perception will be, “That important person is doing their job, not speaking to or worrying about the press.”
4. Be proactive.
Getting ahead of a potential crisis determines what questions may be asked and how you would respond to those questions. We like to call these tough questions “hot grounders.” Make a list of what those might be in various situations and determine how best to answer those questions honestly and with empathy.
5. Take a breath before anyone responds.
Don’t take the bait. There’s a tendency—especially in this all-out, instant, digital media age—to immediately jump on the grenade. Understandable, but ultimately, the best responses are going to be articulated, thoughtful and informative. Take a minute and gather your thoughts before responding in any case. If a TV camera is in the lobby, push them out for 20 minutes. If someone is on the phone, call them back. If it’s unfolding too quickly and is too big to process, take charge of the process. “We’ll be doing a full press briefing in 30 minutes,” or whatever. Even in a crisis, you are the information source. You control the flow. It puts you in charge.
6. Know your audience.
Identify your various audiences and tailor your messages to those individual groups. The way you might address a reporter’s question may be different than how you would speak to your shareholders or employees. Be aware of your audience.
7. Develop a timeline and plan for disseminating information.
When possible, be proactive. Do not wait for an issue to get out of hand before you address it. It is much easier to tell your side of a story when you are proactive versus being reactive.
8. Be honest.
Don’t hide. Don’t lie. Don’t misdirect. Don’t blame. A cover-up is worse than the crime. Try, “We don’t know. We will fix this.” Or “We will look into it. We will find out more.” Step into the matter with honesty and integrity.
In the end, it is all about being prepared. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will be. Our Love PR team has studied how these situations play out, both negatively and positively. Those who have a plan in place prior to a crisis fare better.
Austin Isbell, Director of Public Relations
For nearly a decade, Austin has played a vital role in the success of Love’s PR team and its array of clients. With a thorough understanding of the ever-evolving media landscape and a knack for going big, Austin has executed successful PR campaigns and events for prominent brands such as Google Fiber, United Way of Salt Lake, Altabank, Big-D Construction, BioFire Diagnostics and Natural History Museum of Utah, successfully garnering coverage in national publications from Time and Wall Street Journal to CNET and Endgadget to name a few.
His expertise includes community, media and governmental relations; events and communications planning; crisis management; cause-related marketing; and social media and content management.
As an active supporter of his community, Austin has provided communications and public relations counsel and assistance to several nonprofit organizations in Utah, including the American Advertising Federation, The Road Home and Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity.