Crisis communications: quick tips for riding out a storm

Jason Leung via Unsplash

We’ve been talking with most clients this week about responding to the coronavirus situation, so this seems like an opportune time to share some guidance on crisis communications.

What constitutes a crisis? Any situation that could harm people or property, seriously interrupt your business, significantly damage your reputation or cause substantial financial losses (for you or your customers or clients). A crisis could stem from your enterprise’s actions or products, actions of partners, public allegations or major upheavals like the coronavirus and natural disasters.

Whatever the source, a crisis is always easier to face effectively—and with less anxiety—if you have a communications plan. Here are our core crisis communications guidelines, along with tips on creating and executing a plan.

Guidelines for effective crisis communications

  • Be transparent and honest.
  • Stay ahead of the story as much as possible; don’t be reactive.
  • Start communicating as soon as possible (when you have something to say).
  • Find out everything you can about the problem, including what caused it. Every crisis communications team member needs to know everything.
  • Keep employees informed. Strive for them to hear about an issue before it’s public and to know when you’ll be making public statements.
  • Let employees know what they can and cannot say.
  • Don’t be defensive, say “no comment” or get angry (in public, anyway).
  • Reporters (and everyone else) want facts. Make sure everyone who speaks has the facts and presents them accurately.
  • Don’t let anyone (especially the media) pressure you into speculating if you don’t yet know all the facts, or into guessing at someone else’s motivations.

Creating your crisis plan

  • Define what constitutes a crisis for your organization and develop potential responses to various scenarios, including worst-case scenarios.
  • List stakeholder groups, both internal and external. Note what information they will need and how to communicate with them.
  • Identify the crisis communications team and define roles.
  • Spell out a careful but efficient process for gathering and disseminating information. You can’t be too detailed—communications will break down if you can’t get information out quickly.
  • Identify spokespeople, brief them fully, and make sure they understand the process.
  • Outline a media outreach plan. Define how you will use and monitor all channels. Note the journalists you know—you’ll want to contact them first.

When a crisis happens

  • Activate your team.
  • Assess the situation. What does your business need to do? What do you need to communicate about that?
  • Develop “holding” statements—what you can say if you don’t have all the information you need or don’t know how you will remedy the situation.
  • Develop key messages and talking points.
  • Brief spokespeople.
  • Follow your crisis PR plan.

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