You have an effective plan for mass communication. You send press releases to the media to shower a broad audience with good news. That’s great! But in a crisis, you need to communicate with surgical precision – the right message, to the right audiences, using the right tools, at the exact moment they need to know.
In this section, we’ll let you decide whether you need crisis communications.
You’re a good person. You work hard and do your best every day. You’re honest and ethical. You make a conscious effort to value others and do no harm. But one day, your organization is caught up in something outside of your control. Maybe a storm damages your property, or one of your employees commits a crime, or a board member leaks sensitive information without context. Suddenly, a throng of reporters shows up at your door, demanding answers to questions you aren’t prepared to answer. What do you do?
You could try “no comment.” After all, good reporters are ethically bound to fully represent both sides of a story. Maybe they’ll just go away.
The reality is, you do not deter a reporter one bit by saying, “No comment.” In fact, you’ve likely made their job twice as easy, because now they can put all their effort into one side of the story. Remember, it’s your story. “No comment” hands your story over to someone else.
A good reporter will do all she can to represent your side, but if you’re not the one telling it…imagine the worst case. The best-case scenario ends with you watching something that resembles your story, only from a skewed perspective. There may be half-truths or downright falsehoods, or out-of-context information that you most certainly would have said differently.
You tell the media what you hope is the truth, and it sounds really good when you’re saying it. Maybe they accept it at face value. Or maybe someone else has already told them their truth, and it’s nothing like your truth. Now you’re part of an in-depth, ongoing series of stories, with a growing number of reporters digging in to conflicting stories.
Now, all those years of honest, ethical work take a back seat on the Google bus to this regrettable series of stories.
You were only trying to avoid saying, “No comment”! How did things spiral out of control?
- Acts of God: Tornadoes, ice storms, floods (in other words, Oklahoma weather), fire, etc.
- Budget cuts – especially those that impact customers or staff
- Criminal acts – either directly or indirectly committed by you, a staff member or family member
- Crimes against you, your organization, or anyone remotely related to your organization
- Any of the above that involves any organization like yours, across the globe
The first rule of crisis communications is that crises happen to even the best organizations. And even the best, most prepared organization can suffer irreparable damage to its image if it responds poorly in the court of public opinion. Organizations live or die, not based on their technical response to crises, but on public perception of their response. If you fail to adequately communicate your response, you might as well not have a response.
Downward Spiral of Poor Crisis Communications
Through 20 years in media and media relations, Tami Marler saw first hand the effects of inept, ineffective or non-existent communications through crises:
- Staff becomes nervous and agitated, disgruntled employees become emboldened.
- Fence-sitter staff members lean toward negativity.
- Board, shareholders or benefactors lose trust and look to the media for answers. Every plan they took part in, every painstaking detail you communicated is out the window now that someone else owns your story.
- Day-to-day operations break down, reducing productivity.
- Problem employees dig in, knowing you’re paralyzed with fear.
- The media and public assume you are dishonest, inept or both. Murmurs of “criminal investigation” enter public discourse.
- Anyone who has ever had a conflict with you goes to the media with their complaints and evidence. You are no longer afforded the benefit of the doubt. The “pile-on” begins.
- Your technical response to the crisis drags on because what was once appropriate by consensus is now under public scrutiny.
- Your time is consumed by answering and vetting answers to a growing list of media inquiries.
- Profitability is impacted by the delayed technical response and reduced productivity.
- In the worst case, the media starts demanding terminations or closures.
Make Communications Part of Crisis Recovery
Too many companies and organizations have a slick strategic plan that cost them thousands of dollars for some consultant to create. They have employee manuals they require employees to read and sign. But when it comes to actual operations and communications, the tools they paid so much to develop are nowhere to be found.
Step One – Remember Who You Are
The first step in any crisis communications plan is to remember who you are. Your strategic plan details your organization’s core values, mission and vision. It should drive everything you do, and every communication you release. Ensure anyone who might be contacted by the media is well versed in the stated culture of your organization, so their answers are true to your brand.
Step Two – Anticipate Crises
If you don’t have a crisis communications team, build one now. Select a diverse cross-section of your organization, including solutions-focused team players you can rely on in tense situations. Meet periodically to discuss how you will use the unifying language of your vision, mission and core values to communicate through the list of crises above. Talk through best- and worst-case scenarios.
Practice truly does make perfect. Conduct mock interviews. Even someone who is experienced in public speaking can get intimidated by cameras and microphones. Team members use each other as sounding boards to work through the responses they would share with the media.
A second benefit to the exercise is the probability you will recognize potential crises you can avert by tweaking your operations now.
Your crisis communications team should develop a formal response plan that reflects your organization’s culture and values. Your plan should include the communications for each step in the operational recovery plan.
Step Three: Develop Rote Talking Points
Once your crisis communications team hammers out a formal response plan, develop a set of evergreen talking points that represent your organization’s culture and values. Such statement should be part of every response to crises.
“ABC Company values our employees and customers over all else. That’s why we worked extensively on a crisis recovery plan that went in to effect immediately. Phase one of the plan is to ensure effective communications with our various groups of stakeholders. Here’s how we will communicate going forward…”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those recovering from this incident. We’re working quickly to find answers and will communicate them as soon as we have them.”
Such statements would be true in any disaster, so it’s smart to practice ahead of time.
Step Four: Identify and Train Spokespersons
Your crisis communications team should include a small group of key employees who will act as spokespersons during crises. Your spokespersons should be calm under pressure and free of personal baggage. Typically, the CEO or COO leads the team, with the public relations or media relations official as his or her right hand. The PR official should only be the chief spokesperson if he or she is experienced in crisis response. Public relations is not the same as crisis communications, so no matter how adept your PR official is at sharing your organization’s positive stories, you need someone who understands how the hard-news or breaking-news media works. Your PR official will be an excellent resource for communicating through myriad other tools to your audiences that don’t necessarily consume news.
The spokespersons you designate from your crisis communications team should:
- Know your vision, mission and core values by heart
- Understand the big picture and where and how he/she fits in to it
- Have the ability to remain focused on the core message
- Be trained to tell reporters he/she will get back to them with the correct answer if he/she is unable to answer immediately
- Be comfortable in front of cameras and microphones
If you don’t have someone experienced in crisis communications within your organization, retain an experienced professional to guide you through your first crisis. Once the professional trains your spokespersons, you’ll be more ready to handle whatever other challenges come your way.
Step Five: Continuity of Message
This step should really be the first step, but it’s important to have a plan before you start communicating. Rule Number One in a crisis communications plan is, if you’re giving information to “The News,” make sure your employees know it first. (Of course, this is after you advise your governing board or other influential body or individual.) Do not allow your board or employees to learn vital information that could impact their livelihoods from anyone but you. Nothing creates fodder for tabloid news like disgruntled employees during a crisis. Nothing creates disgruntled employees like sharing information, about them, with the public.
Whatever you share with your employees, share with the media. (If you don’t, chances are someone will.) Communicate to your employees in the same voice, with the same message, as you would the media.
If you tell your employees, “We’ll go bankrupt if we don’t start laying off employees,” when your message to the media is, “We’re giving employees exciting opportunities to experience the job market,” you’re begging for a long ordeal. Assume your every communication is going straight to the media, so write and say it as though you were being interviewed.
Step Six: Identify and Use Your Communications Tools
A good crisis communications plan can feel like juggling greased cats. If you waste time fretting about the one that slipped through your fingers, you’ll miss the next. That’s why it’s important to identify your tools, and the order in which you use them, before the cats start flying.
- If you have a board or other influential body or person, you’ll probably want to make a personal call.
- Tell your employees how and when you will communicate with them in a crisis (which means anything they might see in the news about their employer). Email, group text, apps like WhatsApp, phone trees, all work well for communicating quickly. Be sure to set up groups in advance, and test the system. You can even send audio recordings via text or email. You can also set up private groups on Facebook, though such posts are easy to inadvertently share.
- Tell the media how and when you will communicate with them in a crisis. For instance, a school district may have a calling system that leaves mass messages. You may direct them to your website through social media. Savvy organizations find that using Facebook as a means of communicating in a crisis is a good way to build an audience.
All communications should lead your audience back to an informative, updated website. The important thing is to ensure your various audiences know how to get immediate information in a crisis – long before there is a crisis.
Step Seven: Monitor Communications
At least one of your crisis communications team members should be responsible for monitoring the media and social media. Plan in advance the tools you will use to receive immediate notifications every time your organization is mentioned. Set up alerts in advance, so you’re not scrambling at the last minute. Google Alerts gives you real-time notifications based on criteria you enter. For social media, a variety of tools offer the same type of alerts:
- Sprout Social
It’s important to catch misinformation as immediately as possible. Monitoring communications helps to ensure your plan is reaching its intended audience. It also helps you to gauge public perception and make adjustments if necessary.
It’s also important to monitor “water cooler talk” in the workplace. Have your crisis communications team keep their ears open for troubling shifts in workplace culture so you can make immediate corrections.
Log Your Communications and Responses
Be sure to keep a log of your communications, as well as the media’s responses to it. Which media took your information at face value? Which organizations went around your formal communications channels? Who got it right? Who got it wrong? Knowing who your friends (and foes) are may help you in future situations.
Step Eight: Crisis Communications Debrief
Once the storm blows over and the world has moved on to the next crisis, it’s time to review your response. Discuss what you did well, and what you could improve. Adjust your crisis communications plan accordingly. Lessons learned with experience are sure to improve your response, so be sure to discuss them honestly and openly.
Ask your audiences how you did. Would they do anything differently? Were they satisfied with the information you provided and the tools you used? You’d be surprised how many brownie points you get for including the people you care about in your decisions.
Keep a summary of your debrief with your crisis communications plan. While you will likely never forget the experience, your organization will be around long after you’re gone. Let future leaders benefit from your knowledge.
Yes, It Can Happen to You
You may believe the media doesn’t care about your organization. You may think you’re insignificant in the grand scheme of news. That may be true 99 percent of the time, but it only takes a spark to light a wildfire; and wildfires consume everything in their path.
It only takes one employee arrested for lewd molestation to bring the media to your door, demanding to know what you’re doing to protect the public. It only takes one disgruntled employee to release a stack of reports and emails to their favorite reporter. The communiques may seem benign, but taken out of context, they’re potentially poison. It only takes one major storm to expose gaps in your disaster recovery plan (or lack of). And it only takes one errant quote to create the illusion of ineptitude and weakness, leading to weeks of follow-ups and pile-ons.
We don’t mean to scare you with the scenarios we’ve presented. We hope we’ve impressed upon you the importance of planning, and we’re here to help!
Crisis communications is our specialty; along with image enhancement, public relations strategy, planning and execution. We also design, develop and optimizes websites – where all your stories should begin.