How You Can Communicate through a Crisis

How You Can Communicate through a Crisis

In today’s plugged-in world where information flies faster than ever before, crisis management has taken on a different meaning, a higher degree of urgency and value. With the internet and social media fast-tracking the transfer and sharing of news and providing a platform by which people can articulate their opinion on most things, organizations big and small are finding it imperative to be able to respond quickly and appropriately lest they risk comprising their reputation and business.

A crisis can take many forms. It can be a result of natural causes such as a crisis caused by an earthquake or similar other natural disasters. A crisis may also be financial in scope or technological, with the latter involving cybersecurity threats, loss of database information and related matters.

No matter the cause or scope, a well-thought out communication and management plan will see an organization or business through a crisis.  Responses may differ depending on the situation but let’s look at some general guidelines on what to do to weather the storm.

Have a plan

Many say prevention is better than cure, but even the best of safeguarding strategies do not guarantee that a crisis will never happen. In this sense, planning should not be about how to prevent or avoid a crisis but more so on what to do should one hit.

In an ideal world, a precrisis communication plan should be prepared way in advance. Planning ahead will save organizations and companies a lot not just in terms of costs but more so in headaches and reputation issues.

A precrisis plan should be based on a company-wide issues or vulnerability audit meant to identify and study all company vulnerabilities. This inventory should include a survey of the processes and setups and the possible related issues that may come up.

The outcome of this audit should be an issues manual that outlines protocols on how to deal with potential threats and scenarios. A handy manual will enable the top executives and communications team of an organization to respond quickly to a crisis situation. In addition to outlining the critical response to specific situations, this will serve as a guide that will ensure all steps taken by an organization postcrisis will be aligned with its brand and positioning and help reduce the negative impact of a crisis.

Precrisis planning hurdles

Unfortunately, not too many companies—yes even the big ones—see the value in investing in a precrisis plan. Why?

Many organizations find it too much of a hassle to anticipate a slew of scenarios and outline corresponding response plans for each. Other companies are deterred by the costs and steps involved in conducting an issues audit and publishing a crisis manual guide thereafter.

Still others simply do not find the need, arguing that they have the in-house capability to respond to any crisis or can hire a third-party PR agency to assist them in their crisis management needs in the event something happens.

A prompt response pays

Regardless of whether or not your organization has a crisis manual, a clear strategy for responding to and managing the situation is crucial.

If an immediate full explanation is not possible, an acknowledgement of the situation or event through a holding statement will be a big help.

A swift response communicates to your public that you are aware of the situation and are trying to be in control. It will also help preempt or minimize speculations.

Statement dos and don’ts

An effective holding statement makes the difference between being able to turn a crisis into something positive and doing more damage.

But what makes for a good holding statement? Here are some pointers:

  • Keep it simple and straightforward. Avoid jargon.
  • If you need to prepare different holding statement for the different publics and stakeholders.
  • If possible, issue a response within an hour of the crisis. Remember that time is of the essence here.
  • Optimize all available channels. Take advantage of the internet and social media, if necessary, to reach a wider audience.
  • Show sympathy through an expression of concern about what happened and to those directly affected.
  • Emphasize that public safety is the number one concern.
  • Avoid a “No comment” response. It implies dodging of responsibility or hiding something. Either way, it paints a negative impression about the company or organization.

Depending on the availability of details, a holding statement may provide just enough information to communicate that you are in control of the situation. If you have the answers to the five Ws, share the data.

If, however, you are still awaiting or verifying details, avoid making rash statements and instead say that you will provide details once these are available.  If possible, specify a time by which you will be able to provide an update. This conveys you are involved in handling the crisis.

Don’t stop communicating

Rebuild trust and avoid further reputation damage with sustained communication. Update your publics as more details are confirmed. Correct misinformation as soon as possible to avoid fueling more speculations. Share the steps being taken to address the situation and outline future related plans, if any.

Some organizations even create a site or microsite exclusively for the purpose of handling communication during and after a crisis. A dedicated site can enable better control of information while relaying efforts to fix the problem and avoid future similar occurrences. Others would even hold a forum on their website to let users post messages of empathy or address queries. Still others share updates via Twitter. Indeed, there are more ways now to share information online, making it almost inexcusable not to be able to provide the public with updated data.

Do not, however, get lost in your goal of communicating. Oversharing is ill-advised, and in fact may even worsen the situation rather than bring it under control. Choose the information to share. The message targeted at the general public may be different from that aimed at shareholders or employees. What is important is the message reflects the truth.

To assume or not to assume responsibility

There’s no set-in-stone answer for this one. If an inquiry is still ongoing, it may not be necessary—and could even be unwise—to assume responsibility publicly.

Honesty and transparency, however, should be top priorities if the organization or company is clearly at fault. In this case, denying responsibility could have serious negative consequences, especially in these times when the public feels empowered enough to comment or share their views on almost anything.

American business tycoon Warren Buffett once said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Surely, putting those five minutes to better use with strategic crisis communications and management is worth the investment.


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