|Every once in a while organisations are faced with a situation that puts their reputation at risk or holds the potential to alienate their customers or clients. If left unaddressed or not taken seriously in the business world, these situations can put a business … well, out of business. In the public sector too the ramifications can be equally serious as your clients vote with their feet, at the ballot box, to an ombudsman or even to the media.
So how does an organisation respond to such crises in a way that is honest, appropriate and proactive? The answer is by implementing a strong crisis communications plan.
Whether the crisis is a natural disaster, the result of unusual circumstances or behaviour (such as the spate of rioting seen throughout the country earlier this year), or inappropriate behaviour from a senior member of the organisation, all staff need to know who to alert first and a chain of command in terms of spokespeople. These qualified individuals need to be prepared to disclose information concerning the crisis and address questions from a higher level (such as a regional issue that is impacting the organisation at a national or international level), staff, the public and the media. Ideally, a preliminary crisis communications plan will have been created and stored in an identifiable document wallet or binder in a central location by your communications team. The plan should outline possible scenarios and a plan for communicating to all audiences. That way, in the unfortunate event that you are faced with an emergency, you will be prepared to handle it and ready to get into action through these ten steps:
- As the crisis unfolds, keep in mind that there is always a hierarchy of concern – one that for many is natural but will reinforce credibility with audiences: Be concerned for victims first, employees second, and constituents/the public third
- As soon as a potential crisis rears its head, contact senior level staff and communications personnel immediately
- If the crisis occurs on a site that can be contained, secure the area through closed doors or cordon it off and gather the facts, working cooperatively with other authorities
- Work with communications staff or outsourced experts to create a communications command centre and designate a spokesperson. Create talking points and key messages, anticipating the questions that will be asked and practicing the responses. Also make sure this command centre has multiple phone lines, internet access, computers and printers and fully stocked office materials like pens and pads.
- Your messaging should communicate your action plan – what are the next steps? What is the organisation doing to resolve the situation and ensuring that it does not happen again? Ultimately, though, actions speak louder than words – you’ll be expected to follow through with this action plan and questioned if you don’t.
- Avoid jargon. This will work against your messages and key points and create confusion. Additionally, don’t speculate in your messages – just stick to the facts and as new facts become available, provide updates.
- Be accountable and don’t blame others. It is possible to be accountable without admitting guilt or wrongdoing by simply acknowledging that an event has occurred.
- Tell the truth. Because the likelihood is that if you haven’t, someone will find out and you’ll have an even bigger communications disaster on your hands.
- Remember that the media is not the bad guy – they can and often will help you get your message out during a crisis or emergency. That being said, there is no such thing as ‘off the record’ and it’s not advisable to argue with reporters or go on the defensive. Perhaps most importantly when dealing with the media, know that silence is not golden, nor is statement of ‘no comment’. Not commenting opens the floor to the public filling the void with rumour and speculation and, in many cases, doing so appears to be admission of wrongdoing or apathy. There are of course situations in which you will be legally prohibited from providing a direct comment to a crisis such as a pending lawsuit or legal action – but usually in these situations you should still be able to offer some sort of response.
- Use multiple channels to get your message out. Media are often the first to come knocking when word of your emergency or crisis occurs, but keep the message in your control by consistently communicating through multiple channels. Utilise social media such as Twitter, Facebook or blogs and update your website as the crisis or emergency is dealt with. Many organisations have found great success in temporarily turning their home page or adding a specific landing page into an online communications command centre. Larger organisations also often implement hotlines for those affected by the crisis or emergency to call for information or assistance. For crises with less immediacy, promote this hotline in person and via direct mail with a letter and a memorable item like a keyring or a puzzle. Don’t discount the power of personal phone calls or e-mails, either.
When it comes to successfully handling a crisis, preparation is the key and so is communication. With the increased use of social media and prevalence of mobile devices, sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are awash with links to videos and photos and rumours which are updated by the minute. If the story catches the public imagination your organisation absolutely has to be a part of it from the very beginning or you’ll have to defend yourself against all sorts of erroneous claims that bear little or no relation to the situation in hand. Crisis communication is no longer an option, it’s a necessity for every organisation large and small.