Communicating through a crisis

Business meeting

Most businesses and organizations will face a crisis at some point, whether it’s an on-the-job accident, a CEO scandal or an unflattering viral video about your organization. By preparing for a crisis, your organization will withstand the challenge and may come out stronger in the end.

Many organizations take too much time to respond to a crisis, blame others for the situation or become non-responsive. These reactions will only drag out the crisis. Your goal in a negative situation is to minimize the problems, respond to the affected parties as soon as possible and ensure the business continues to function normally. The best way to accomplish these goals is to be visible and provide information to your most important publics as the crisis unfolds.

How do I get started? Prepare. You can’t always be prepared for the specific crisis scenario you will face, but anticipating what type of crisis may occur and creating a plan will help manage the crisis when it happens. Distribute the plan, including contact information of key individuals, to people who may need it, such as public relations staff and management. The plan should assign roles to team members. For example, one person can be designated to communicate with employees, one person can speak to news media, and another with your publics on social media. Then, practice the plan with mock exercises. This will help you find areas that need improvement and help your team become comfortable with their role in managing the crisis.

We’re facing a crisis – now what? You need to address the situation as soon as possible. First, identify your priority publics (employees, customers and stockholders are common) and, based on your plan, designate one spokesperson to provide information to each of these groups. Then, create an accurate statement addressing the situation that is flexible enough to add details as you obtain information. If you only know that the event occurred, the statement should reflect that, adding you will provide more information as soon as it becomes available. If your organization chooses not to respond at all, someone else will, and they may not be the most credible source. This often will add confusion to the crisis and make matters worse for your organization.

But what do I say? Focus on those impacted by the crisis and address their needs in your response. Ask yourself, if I was in their situation – what information would I want/need to know? Speak to those issues. Talk about what you are doing to address the situation. Don’t say “no comment.” If you are not sure of an answer, or can’t answer a question, say so and provide the information that you can. It’s also important to let people know when you expect to have more information.

How do I share this information? Inform employees and internal audiences first using company-wide emails, intranets and staff meetings. To manage calls from the media during intense parts of crisis, establish a dedicated media line and have someone on-call 24 hours a day. Depending on the severity of a crisis, schedule regular press conferences. Also, don’t forget to update your website quickly and monitor your social media accounts. You need to communicate with your audiences on the platforms where they are talking about your crisis. So if the crisis is happening on social media – respond via social media. It is important to communicate with the news media, but often a crisis unfolds in cyberspace, so maintain your presence on the Internet. Whatever methods you choose, set clear expectations and timelines for updates and stick to these timelines – even if your update is that there is no change in the situation.

If your organization focuses on being available, responsive and honest then you can move past whatever unfortunate situation you may face.

AmeliaAmelia Bell, APR, marketing communications manager at RTI Surgical, has experience in corporate communications including internal communications, media relations and marketing communications. She received a master’s degree in mass communication and a bachelor’s degree in public relations from the University of Florida. She serves as president-elect for the Gainesville Chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association.

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