Managing the message in a crisis
Sometimes, you need to think beyond the immediate. This may seem extremely difficult when your building is burning down, the basement containing your critical IT hardware is flooding or your Chief Executive has just been arrested for international fraud. However, communicating effectively about a crisis - managing the message - is usually equally (if not more) important than resolving it.
When disaster strikes, staff, customers, regulators and sometimes financial markets need to be reassured that you are being open, honest, have a recovery plan in place and are addressing any reputational damage. Indeed, this messaging might be the difference between surviving the crisis or going under.
Good communication takes time, effort and rigorous planning. Having a strategy in place to deal with the fallout from any serious, business-threatening disruption and then being able to action that plan quickly should be at the top of the list for every organisation’s business continuity framework.
A dedicated crisis communications team
It makes sense to have a dedicated communications (comms) team sit alongside the crisis team, with its own dedicated specialists and plan. This team should join crisis team exercises and be prepared and trained to respond in tandem when an incident occurs.
Having a dedicated crisis comms team brings significant value to an organisation. Not only is incident messaging managed effectively, it enables the crisis team to focus on the event, rather than what they should be saying and to whom.
Communications is a broad function so, ideally, different people will have their own specialist responsibilities within it. These will probably include internal messaging (informing staff and core contractors), clients, investors and financial stakeholders. This also includes other relevant stakeholders including local communities, competitors (and potential competitors), traditional media (including print and broadcast) and social media.
There may also be a spokesperson designated to appear as the public face of the organisation if a crisis occurs. They will almost certainly be a member of the senior management team, be confident and authoritative, and will have had the media training necessary to allow them to grasp, understand and deliver the core messages without straying from them.
Proactive crisis management
It is essential to be able to provide public and private comfort that the situation (e.g. a terrorist attack, cybercrime, loss of a key figure or an extreme weather event) is under control and that a recovery plan has been, or is being, implemented.
This means getting on the front foot quickly. Forward planning is worth its weight in gold here. That means having a blueprint already drawn up for getting information out quickly and accurately.
Using your online presence can help, with a hidden, pre-prepared web page ready to make visible on your website if something happens. This will allow anyone looking for the most up-to-date messaging to find what they need.
This web page can be a template to start with, populated with appropriate content as the crisis unfolds to create a single source of truth capable of being updated speedily, as and when necessary.
Making this information readily available in this way can save valuable time and resources in avoiding having to handle incoming queries at the time — when the focus needs to be on resolving the crisis.
Emergency messaging during a crisis
Keeping staff informed is arguably even more important than dealing with external stakeholders. They are usually an organisation’s biggest asset so should be at the centre of any strategy.
One way of doing this is for the comms team handling the response to send out emergency messages to staff in the form of a text message (or similar, depending on the messaging system capabilities).
This method should only be used sparingly and when absolutely necessary, balancing the need to keep people informed while not causing them to panic. A short text might direct them to the website or a dedicated intranet page to find out more.
It also makes sense to ask recipients to acknowledge they have received and read the message. This will allow for people to be accounted for through an electronic roll call if the crisis may involve injury or loss of life.
Communicating with stakeholders in a crisis
Key stakeholders should have been identified and listed by the crisis and comms team in advance. Once again, pre-prepared communications providing reassurance and directing them to the web site or to get in touch with their dedicated contacts can be used here.
The media will also need and expect to be kept informed. Given the 24-hour rapid news cycle with which we all live, any crisis response needs to be fast and proactive. Relevant TV stations, radio stations and newspapers should be contacted and given as much accurate information as possible.
Winning the support and trust of journalists and editors is imperative. Honesty is critical. It is far better for an organisation’s reputation to be open about bad news and explain the positive steps being taken to deal with the crisis, than to try and hide things or (even worse) to lie. Try this and you will invariably be found out, thereby compounding the problem and the damage.
"It is far better for an organisation’s reputation to be open about bad news and explain the positive steps being taken to deal with the crisis, than to try and hide things or (even worse) to lie."
Social media is also a key form of communication. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook allow both truth and rumour to spread globally at a terrifying speed. Key messaging needs to be short, simple, honest, impactful and believable.
Regularly updated posts keep people informed in real-time and, once again, links to your website can provide fuller information. By its very nature, social media needs to be very carefully managed and the content refined and consistent.
This means that staff should be strongly discouraged from commenting on the crisis in any way in their own personal postings, so avoiding the risk of the corporate messaging becoming confused, emotional, individualised or inaccurate.
PR and crisis management
Most big organisations have the in-house communications skills necessary to handle these different communications channels within a single, carefully mapped out plan. Others may not, in which case it is worth bringing in external specialist consultants to help.
The obvious solution may appear to be to engage and retain a public relations company, but it pays to spend time making the right choice. Not all PR companies perform all communications functions equally well. Some may be good at social media, while others excel at crisis communications, general media or dealing with the City and financial organisations.
Exploring an agency’s strengths and weaknesses, discussing their offering in depth and being confident that they can adopt the right tone and handle all the challenges thrown at them are also essential steps in the selection process.
Mitigating the effects of a crisis
To an extent, of course, everyone will muddle through in a crisis. That is in the very nature of a significant unplanned event. But consistency, forward planning, clear heads and a strong, consistent message will all help to mitigate the effects and the damage.
Good communications don’t just help manage a crisis. They are the management of a crisis. They determine whether your organisation will sink or swim. Wise leaders will make them a priority. They know that if they do so, they will probably be around in the months or years to come to tell the tale of how they survived.
"Good communications don’t just help manage a crisis. They are the management of a crisis. They determine whether your organisation will sink or swim."
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