The Art of Crisis Communications: Have a Plan but Keep it Simple

For this week’s blog, I asked longtime PR pro, Staci Busby, to share her insights on crisis communications, a very important topic that inevitably must be faced by all companies and their communicators.  With more than 20 years working in corporate, non-profit and agency environments, Staci Busby is an accredited Public Relations Counselor who has led crisis communications teams through a variety of issues and crises, ranging from employee murders, picketing and triple swipes on debit cards to E. coli poisoning, natural disasters and significant layoffs.

Oil spills, toxic sludge slides and mine disasters… now what? We’re confronted with major disasters regularly. How we handle these crises for our employers can make or break their reputations.

It’s always interesting to read the opinion pieces after a catastrophe occurs. “I would have done this.” “They should have done that.” The truth is we all would do better in hindsight. So the best we can do is learn from our experiences and mistakes, (ours and others), and be as prepared as possible when a crisis does hit.

Although in a crisis situation we’re usually forced into a reactionary mode, it is possible to plan ahead by creating a basic process to follow so that you are not blindsided when a tragedy occurs. I’m not an advocate for filling your bookshelves with plans for anything and everything that might happen, but I do believe it’s important to brainstorm possible threats and develop a simple guide that will help you and your company endure potential crises.

You may find volumes of valuable information to help you predict, plan, practice and prepare for the unthinkable; but it’s rare to find a simple, practical guide to use once a crisis hits, so here are a few simple tips to keep in mind.

  1. First, when a crisis hits, take a deep breath and clear your mind so you can focus on the specific issue you are facing and determine its magnitude.  It’s hard to think during a crisis, particularly if people are injured or killed. Use the simple guide you’ve already developed to help you focus on steps that need to be taken.
  2. Next, gather the facts and develop key messages. Uncover the who, what, why, when and where of the crisis – without speculation, rumor or innuendo. Then, flesh out the basic messages regarding the situation.
  3. Third, identify key audiences (investors, employees, customers, any government officials, media, etc.) that need to be informed. You can tailor your messages to the relevant audiences based on what is most important to them. For example, if a crisis occurs that is not publicized by the media, you may still send a letter to employees explaining the situation. However, it’s always important to be prepared to respond if the press becomes aware of the situation, or you may choose to work with key members of the media to disseminate your message to a particular audience.
  4. Next, identify a limited number of spokespeople, ensure they are familiar with the issue and prepare them to deliver the key messages. Consistent messages are critical because they can minimize confusion and help an organization maintain credibility during an emergency or crisis situation. It’s essential that the spokesperson represent a unified voice for the company.
  5. Determine the most effective method of communicating to each audience. A letter or e-mail to employees may be the best way to handle an internal issue. However, if it is an issue with public consequences, you may decide to respond with a written or verbal statement delivered by an authorized spokesperson. When contemplating the method of communication, always consider the extent of the situation, the audience and the impact it may have on the company.
  6. Now, communicate. How, what and when you communicate to whom can affect the impact of the situation, positively and negatively. The quicker you communicate clearly to your selected audiences, the fewer rumors you have to dispel. Quickly communicate how the crisis will be resolved and what steps you will take to prevent it from happening again. If the resolution is a long process, offer some checkpoints as to when you’ll be   updating your target audiences about your company’s progress.
  7. After the initial response, remember to monitor the results of public statements. What is being reported? How are employees/customers/investors feeling about the crisis? Are your messages being delivered? Are questions being answered? If your messages are not clear, or are misinterpreted, you may need to adjust the statements accordingly. Stay on top of how the media reports the crisis. Be sure to correct factual errors quickly, so that they are not repeated. In the age of social media, it’s important to have a way of monitoring online chat and responding via selected channels if deemed appropriate.
  8. Assess initial reaction to the crisis and review new information. Once the heat of the moment subsides, the tendency is to move on to other business matters. While the end goal is to resume normal business operations, it is important to stay with a crisis situation until it has been resolved completely and there is no new information to report. Crises often evolve, so you should continue to review communications until the threat and discussion subside completely.
  9. Next, determine whether additional communication is needed. Think about employees, customers, investors and other audiences who may take comfort in receiving an official communication informing them that the situation is resolved.
  10. Finally, remember to evaluate the effectiveness of your crisis communications process by asking these questions:
    • How can we prevent this from happening again?
    • How can we improve the crisis/issues management process?
    • What went right? What went wrong?
    • How should we revise our guide based on what we’ve learned?
    • What did we need at our fingertips that wasn’t available?

This is where “I should have; I could have” comes in handy. Learn from each issue or crisis and apply those lessons to your ongoing planning process.

Remember, it takes years for a company to build a solid reputation and seconds to destroy it. When a crisis hits, the people involved in handling the fallout have very little time to think and often have difficulty thinking clearly, depending on the magnitude of what has happened.  Having a simple plan and following basic steps to communicate will help insure your company keeps its reputation intact no matter what type of crisis it is facing.