Communicating during a crisis
Let’s face it, most of us want to have our tranquil morning coffee and go about our day as if we’re on a beach in Bali. But we live in the real world, and no matter how much we keep our media strategy under control, there’s bound to be some sort of PR crisis now and then.
We’ve put together a few steps to take in order to plan for, prevent, and handle a communications crisis, as well as how to learn from the experience and plan for the next one!
1 - Plan
The best laid plans…work
Having a plan in place for how to communicate when a crisis does occur could mean the difference between taming the rumblings of a crisis and dealing with full-blown catastrophe. Your best bet is to draft a written plan ahead of time. In this plan, be sure to include who will be the the main point of contact internally and externally for the company or client, who the key stakeholders are, and what methods of communication will be used.
For example, if your company or client is all email all the time, create an established email group of key management personnel, the communications team leader and in some cases, lawyers, human resources, and others. Use this chain to alert individuals initially of a crisis and perhaps set up an in-person meeting. Be very clear in the first email whether communication should continue via email. If a company’s crises are deemed too sensitive for email, use the Wall Street Journal test: imagine if you’d be comfortable with any email you send were to show up on the front page of the WSJ, and you’ll have your answer. If it doesn't pass the test, make it very clear that the team should call the head of communications with questions. Set up a conference call with this group (or meeting if feasible), ideally within the first 30 minutes of a crisis.
Know your stakeholders
Stakeholders can include company leadership, employees, investors, distributors, suppliers, customers, brand ambassadors and media influencers. Build trust and relationships with senior management so you can be at the driver’s seat of a communications crisis, so that senior leadership isn’t a bottleneck and you can be the main point of contact internally and externally.
Know how to make technical updates
This can't be stressed enough. The tech team may not be available and shouldn’t be a bottleneck when communicating during a crisis. If a catastrophe occurs during off hours, the communications team should be able to make updates to website and have access to key systems. This will empower the main communications person to issue a statement on the website without needing a developer.
2 - Prevent
An apple a day can keep a crisis at bay
In addition to having an ethical operating business and stellar customer service, paying attention to market trends and media rumblings pays off both in the short and long run.
Get to know your friends, and especially your enemies
A key element of this is building and maintaining relationships with key media influencers so 1) they know who you are, 2) you can get ahead of stories before they’re written and 3) so they take your call or respond to your email during a crisis.
To do this, keep tabs on what journalists are saying about your company or client. Monitor what these influencers are writing about and having conversations about on social media. For example, Muck Rack Alerts are a handy tool that delivers to your inbox either a daily digest or up-to-the minute emails when journalists are sharing information on social media, sourcing for stories, or publishing articles about your company or client. Check out how MasterCard uses the Alerts feature to get ahead of and correct looming press issues.
Build relationships with customers and the public
Follow your customers, company’s and clients Twitter followers so they can send a DM (Direct Message) rather than publicly @mentioning or @replying. Have a clear strategy within your communications team of which Twitter account the communications team should respond from during a crisis, if any. For example, decide whether the team should reply from their personal Twitter accounts, the company’s main Twitter handle or its customer service Twitter handle.
3 - Breathe
But what if, after all of this planning and prevention, a crisis hits?
The first thing to do is breathe. Then, handle it.
4 - Handle
In general, the communications team at a company should be the coordinator and facilitator of communication and messaging. If that’s you, here’s what you can do.
What are people saying about your company or client? Get up to speed on what’s being said on social media, what has been written and/or broadcasted, and what might come next. Know what ammunition the company has to defend itself against certain claims, even if the situation calls for just promptly apologizing or not responding. You may not need to use all of information you have, but this background knowledge is will inform your message and how you position and deliver it effectively.
Deal with the most issues urgent first
Decide whether it’s better to be proactive on your own social channels, to have a policy to answer posts only, or not comment at all? The latter is more likely for highly regulated industries. Check out this example of how the prestigious investment firm KPCB sent this tweet out after Tom Perkins (a founder that represents the “P” in its name, but who is no longer involved closely with the company) made a controversial statement. These types of shorter responses typically take much less time to write and get signed off by internal parties than a press release, official statement or even a blog post.
Facilitate internal communication
Alert and keep informed leadership, customer service teams, lawyers, human resources, technology, and anyone communicating with external parties. All of these stakeholders need to know how to respond. If it’s a big enough issue, let employees know how to respond to questions. It’s possible that you’ll need to tell them not to comment to anyone, (verbally, via email or on social media), including to friends and family.
In some cases, sending an email to all employees is useful, so people can be kept informed and stay on message. Keep in mind that any email you send will definitely, not maybe, end up in the hands of someone outside the company, and in cases of bigger companies, that person would almost always be a journalist. Use the WSJ test mentioned above.
Issuing a statement
Decide if this is advantageous or necessary. For highly regulated and public companies, this may be a given.
5 - Learn
Learn from and revise your crisis plan for next time.
Post-crisis, the communications team should do a debrief session together, and involve leadership, lawyers, client service teams and other relevant parties. Using this feedback, make revisions to your crisis plan. And it can never hurt to set up super targeted, highly relevant Muck Rack Pro Alerts to keep tabs on key media influencers.
(Image: Volcanic eruption via Shutterstock)