How to Crest a Crisis

by Sarah Hill
August 17, 2018 • 4 minute read

A crisis can literally happen in the blink of an eye—a fire can erupt, a tornado can hit or a leader can have one too many adult beverages and make a very bad decision.

While these scenarios may seem far-fetched, these crises can and do happen. As communicators, it’s our job to be ready if—and when—those situations occur, and be prepared to respond accordingly. Yes, I’m talking about crisis communications.

Crisis communications are all too often neglected. It’s like going to the doctor or cleaning out the garage. We all know we should tackle crisis communications, but it’s not easy, takes time and there are usually 1,000 other items on our to-do list that we’d rather take care of first.

I would posit that crisis communications preparations are one of the most important things you can do for the security of your business. It’s much easier to enact a plan that’s already in place when a crisis occurs than to make up your crisis response as you go along. A well-thought-out crisis communications plan can save you a lot of time and trouble when you need to act now.

Crisis Communications Goals

There are a few goals when it comes to crisis communications:

  • Quickly share accurate information with the media, your clients/customers and other interested stakeholders
  • Demonstrate how your organization is working to fix the problem
  • Get back to business as usual as soon as possible

Let’s break each of those down.

Just the Facts

During a crisis, there is usually a lot of information floating around, including rumors and speculation. Some of this information might be factually accurate, and some might not be. Any misinformation being shared is a negative for your business.

The goal of crisis communications is to get everyone on the same page by setting the story straight. Stick to the facts. If you don’t have all the little details yet, that’s OK—the media are used to dealing with evolving stories. When more information becomes available, make it available. Trust me, your employees, stakeholders, customers and the media will appreciate it.

A perfect example of waiting too long to respond to a crisis happened during the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica hubbub earlier this year. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, took a lot of heat for not addressing the matter at all when the general public saw it as a crisis, since it was their private information that was at risk. The court of public opinion is brutal and will not tolerate an overabundance of caution. Face the public sooner rather than later, and when you do, share the facts. The people will be much more forgiving if you do.

Believe it or not, a crisis can be a positive for your organization, because it clarifies what is really important. What a leader says during and after a crisis is highly likely to be remembered because everyone is hyper-focused.

Work the Problem

It’s not enough to admit that yes, something happened, and here’s what happened. A crisis scenario is your company’s opportunity to demonstrate that you are aware of what happened and that your business is resilient enough to correct the issue and come back better than before to serve your clients and customers.

If you’ve worked in marketing long, you’ve probably heard about Tylenol’s crisis response in 1982. Several Tylenol bottles were laced with cyanide, resulting in the deaths of seven people and creating a nationwide panic. Not only did Tylenol act fast and decisively, they also informed the public of how they were fixing the problem. As a result, when they had proven that they had, in fact, solved the issue, their sales soared. The brand is still trusted today.

Back to Business

A thorough crisis communications plan not only guides your company through communicating during a crisis situation, it also serves as a blueprint for your employees on what to do to get back to business as quickly as possible.

A top-line crisis communications plan should include:

  • Contact info for all stakeholder groups—employees, customers, clients, vendors, etc.
  • A business continuation plan—key information that leadership would need to know if someone is ever incapacitated for an indeterminate amount of time
  • Internal communications procedures

Another key to successfully handling a crisis is ensuring that business keeps flowing, as much as possible. Make sure you have an alternate location identified where you can do business if your headquarters is unavailable for some reason. Try to enable your employees to continue doing their jobs and meet deadlines—the stability of your business depends on it.

Remember, stuff can be replaced. Your most prized asset—your staff—cannot be replaced. If a crisis is impacting an entire community, such as a wildfire, tornado or flood, some of your employees might not be able to get into work or find childcare for their families. People—and their safety—should come first. Make sure that your employees know this, if the crisis calls for it. If you can, and your employees have power and are safe, allow them to work from home for a few days or until they can safely return to the office.

Be sure to check and see if your state offers disaster recovery funds. If your business can’t pay your employees, they might be eligible for unemployment during that short period while your business is down. Empower your HR department to help your employees. If the crisis is severe enough, their financial security may be one of the last things they’re thinking about in the moment, but something they very much care about long-term.

Moral of the Story

According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, over the past few years, trust in almost all major institutions has dipped significantly. That same survey found that nearly three-fourths of workers trust their employer to act ethically, and nearly as many workers expect businesses to prioritize establishing trust over increasing profits. At the end of handling any crisis, your business’ primary goal should be keeping and further building trust with your employees, customers and clients. Trust is what will steel you through a crisis, so don’t wait—get a crisis communications plan in place today.

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