When a Crisis Comes
April 4, 2012
A responsible business should be prepared for a crisis. What many businesses don’t take into consideration in their planning and preparation is having an effective communication strategy as part of the crisis plan. It’s difficult to figure out all the aspects of a crisis, but developing broad parameters for the crisis itself and then preparing a plan that includes crisis communication will put any business on much firmer ground. While this article won’t try to help you define what a crisis is for your business, it will try to help you figure out a communication strategy for crisis situations that can then be tailored to your company’s specific needs with the systems and tools to respond effectively.
A crisis can be an event or series of events that puts your company’s reputation at risk. Crisis communication can’t help mitigate that risk, and it won’t make your company safer or healthier. But it can help keep your business from being destroyed through misinformation, rumor and innuendo. Thorough crisis planning and management will help an organization survive and continue to operate.
You should take all forms of communication, both internal and external, into consideration when you’re in the early stages of crisis communication planning. That’s everything from interoffice channels to a communication vehicle for mass media, responding to an individual reporter’s questions or keeping your company social media sites updated. All these elements must be included and then a plan for coordinated communication developed. To avoid even one aspect of crisis communications can be detrimental to your reputation.
Another question that has to be determined quickly is if there is a need for a crisis response website. Such a site can be valuable as a resource for both the media and stakeholders and key influencers. We recommend that your company create the shell of such a site and have it ready to be used when it is determined that the crisis is of such a level that the site will prove a valuable resource. Once that determination is made, the site can be populated with additional information and background regarding the crisis.
You should also work hard to find credible resources that have a relationship with your company and can vouch for your business practices, ethics and reliability. These relationships should already be in place, but it is important to communicate to these sources that you would like to use them as contacts and references in specific crisis situations.
In any crisis, details are your best resource. Facts and figures, background information on the company and specific sources of information that will be available are all necessary to make sure you can provide the essential information that can be distributed to all your constituent publics and stakeholders quickly and accurately.
Consistency is a great asset that should never be taken for granted in a crisis. Your crisis team should include members from top management that include safety, human resources and legal department representatives along with the CEO, COO and CFO from the executive suite. This team works together with the spokesperson/s to develop key messages and craft the initial statement.
It is vitally important that part of your plan include designating and thoroughly training a designated spokesperson or spokespersons. These individuals are your company’s representatives to the media or your stakeholders and key influencers. Ideally a single spokesperson should represent the company before its key publics on a given issue. If you do need more than one spokesperson, make sure each one is completely briefed on what the others are saying and they all have the same set of key messages. The support of top management and key departments, such as legal or human resources, is vital.
It is also very important to maintain control of social media channels and communicate to all employees how important it is to refrain from discussing or speculating about the crisis on their personal social media pages. It is best to offer a simple instruction to refer any inquiries or statements made by “friends” on their sites to the home page or crisis response site that has been set up by the company.
As we’ve seen recently in the Lean, Finely Textured Beef issue, timing is crucial. The first 24 hours of a crisis are the key to your company’s fate. The longer you wait, the more likely falsehoods become accepted truth. That was certainly the case with the BPI situation, when the pejorative term “pink slime” was spread throughout traditional, digital and social media. Never let misinformation or mischaracterizations go unchallenged. The errors are usually based on inaccurate or fragmentary information.
When a crisis happens a rapid, accurate response is essential. How rapid? If you have an effective plan in place, your company should be prepared to issue an initial statement within sixty minutes of the first development, provided that the important facts can be assessed that quickly. The first statement should go immediately to key stakeholders and influencers as well as the media. The media filter can often leave out key elements, and it’s important that the people who will have your back have the same information that you’ve sent to the media. Rumor control begins with your friends and colleagues. This initial statement should be followed with an alert to all concerned audiences that additional details will be made available as soon as possible. When you can fill information vacuums with your perspective, you can begin to take control of the crisis communication battle. And it’s important to be quick to correct any misinformation, communicating directly with the reporter, editor or blogger who published it.
Assessing blame or fault in a crisis situation can take days, weeks, months, weeks and even years. Your initial communication should never try to assess blame or fault. But that doesn’t mean you can’t stand up, take control of the situation as best as possible and be heard. By conveying your company’s sense of responsibility and commitment to resolving the situation and your expressions of concern and empathy, you build instant trust and credibility with the media and your stakeholders.
It’s important to remember that the media doesn’t hate you. They don’t love you either. And in most cases, they’re not out to get you. They’re out to get the facts about what happened and get the story out. When you see them as being helpful in telling your side of the story, and have an organized and informed approach to providing them with the key facts and information that will reinforce that, you will be moving along the road to a successful communication effort. There’s nothing that raises the hackles of the media than when a company or an individual withholds essential information or closes itself off to any inquiry whatsoever. Creating a strong relationship with the media should begin immediately, hopefully long before a crisis occurs.