When it goes wrong: communications in a crisis

Things go wrong. It’s the way you are perceived to respond to a crisis that can make or break your reputation.  There is no magic wand to avert a communications crisis, but there are a number of steps any organisation should take to deal effectively with a potential PR disaster.

Here are Parkin Whitman’s ten essentials for crisis communications:

1. Plan ahead
In our social media age there is no chance that a bad news story will just go away. Being prepared is the best policy.  Keep risk registers up to date, ensure spokespeple have had appropriate media training, encourage a culture of openess, and make sure there is a crisis plan in place.

2. Act quickly and decisively
Ignoring the situation will only make things worse. When a crisis occurs, people’s initial sense of shock often turns to anger if you are not seen to take the appropriate action. And by acting quickly you can help set the narrative and tone of the debate.

3. Set up the crisis team
A small team of senior staff should manage the crisis.  Usually this would include the CEO, Communications Director and company lawyer. The team should meet face to face where possible and keep paperwork to a minimum for a fast response and to avoid leakage of sensitive information.

In most situations the Chief Executive or Chair should be seen to take personal charge of the aftermath of a crisis and to be the principal spokesperson.

4. Agree the position
Get the facts and agree your position. What caused the problem? What is the scale? What are the consequences? Who else is involved? Could it have been prevented? What will you do to a) rectify the problem and b) make sure it doesn’t happen again?  Set out lines to take and key messages for official spokespeople.  Make the case clear and simple, and stick to it consistently.

5. Brief all relevant people
Never appear divided. In an ideal world there should be one single, consistently communicated position and only designated spokespeople should communicate with the media.  That’s unlikely to happen with social media, but by ensuring that staff, partners and key external contacts have been properly briefed you can minimise unhelpful speculation.

6. Understand others’ views
You will need to anticipate the response of the general public and media. But don’t forget to also understand the situation from the viewpoint of whoever else is involved in the crisis, and who might capitalise from it.

In short: find out who you’re up against, and how they are likely to behave.

7. Communicate with candour and honesty
Try not to sound defensive or too corporate. Aim for straightforward language and a sympathetic tone that eases public anxiety about a problem, but that does not play down the issue.  Note that it is very hard to change public opinion about the size of a risk (even if we see an issue as small).

8. Don’t give in to speculation
Reporters may push hard for speculation, but your lawyers will tell you: never, ever admit liability for what has happened and never speculate about the cause of the crisis.

9. Work with journalists
Initially the media is often either neutral or sympathetic when an organisation is in crisis. It is usually when they believe the organisation is withholding, or being unduly slow in giving, information that journalists become hostile.

Never attempt to hide the facts of what has happened. Instead, establish the organisation at the centre of the crisis as the single authoritative source of information about what has happened and what is being done about it.  Issue regular press releases and statements, but remember that most journalists will get their information from social media.

10. Last but by no means least: social media is your best friend 
Social media has transformed the ways in which organisations respond to crises, and there are a wide range of online resources devoted to social media crises (here’s a useful 10-step guide.)

Your social channels will allow you to lead the narrative; to address specific concerns; to demonstrate your openness and to set the right tone for your brand.

Like a best friend, social will tell you the truth about how people see you. Continuous monitoring is absolutely essential in order to be able to respond quickly and understand how public opinion is evolving.

It is a good idea to pause business as usual posts until the crisis has been dealt with. And resist the temptation to delete unsupportive comments: it is far better to politely correct misinformation or to acknowledge a problem than to be perceived as arrogant or untrustworthy.

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