By: Amanda Fischer
If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s that crises are bound to happen. No one plans for a crisis to happen, but at some point every company will face a situation that will require them to respond swiftly, articulately and directly to something that could make or break their business. The question isn’t if a crisis will happen – it’s are you prepared for when it does happen.
Here are best practices for crisis communication that every business should know and implement.
The worst thing you can do in a crisis situation is to panic. Businesses sometimes lose sight of the overall situation when a crisis occurs. The irony in our business is that often when our clients need us the most, they pull the plug because they need to “deal with a crisis.” The best thing to do is calmly assess the situation and figure out what the necessary steps are. Now is the time to use your public relations firm to communicate like crazy to your organization’s customers and stakeholders. A crisis is not the time to abandon the people who know the best ways to help you and it’s not the time to pull away from your customers and communities.
Plan the Work. Work the Plan.
One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is not having a crisis communication plan in place before they are dealing with a crisis. Although it’s impossible to predict a crisis, having a plan of action for basic procedures to guide your organization in stressful and difficult times can be the difference between getting through the issue with little to no long-term damage and having it turn into the PR nightmare that causes you to lose revenue, customers and respect.
There are many formats and ways to put together a crisis communications plan, but every plan should include:
- Crisis management team – Who is your group of people responsible for making decisions during a crisis?
- Spokesperson designation and training – Who is the one person of small group of people who have the credibility and authority to be responsible for talking to the media about the crisis? Once you’ve identified them, it’s important to train them. In the business, we say we need to practice having people in the “hot lights.” People are the most comfortable in situations they’ve experienced, so developing messaging and having your media relations team ask your designated spokespeople hard questions while you’re running a camera gives them muscle memory and the confidence they need when things are real.
- Crisis response plan – What steps do you have to take to resolve to or respond appropriately to the crisis? There should be a crisis team within your organization that meets quarterly to discuss any issues related to responding to various types of crises—is the plan up to date? Are spokespeople still there and trained? Do you have the basics in place like what will you do if your workers can’t get to the office to do their jobs? Do certain people need to have special equipment? Are your important documents digitized and stored offsite so you could quickly get back up and running? Crisis planning is an important, whole-operation activity.
- Communication team Who will be assigned to create all communications that will go out to internal and external audiences? These are people you trust to quickly respond with the right messages and to constantly keep your media lists up to date and on them at all times.
- Key messaging – Every crisis is different. The most important thing you should have in your crisis plan is a reminder of who you are as a company. Reminding yourselves of your values when things are difficult can be the key to creating the situation-specific messaging that resonates with heart with your audiences, employees and media.
- Audience identification – What internal and external audiences would you need to address? What about secondary audiences and stakeholders?
- Notification system – How you will share approved information internally and externally? What is the approval process? What can you do now to make sure people who need to approve crisis communication are educated on media expectations and timelines? A crisis is the worst time to have an article say your organization couldn’t be reached for comment because your approval process took too long. Educate your executives and attorneys about the importance of prioritizing crisis communication and media response before you’re in a crisis.
You will need to update your crisis plan as the situation unfolds. It is a living, breathing document. You never know what’s going to happen and you will need to adjust – and that’s OK. Even the best communicators in the world can’t predict every situation that will arise. Be flexible and ready to make changes when needed—but try to stick to the important elements of the process – your spokespeople, chain of command, approvals, etc.
If you work with a public relations firm, be sure to enlist their help with putting together a plan right away. If you don’t have a firm, consider using one to help create a comprehensive plan because crises happen, and creating a crisis plan on the fly can wreak havoc on even a very trusted brand’s reputation.
Communicate Early. Communicate Often.
Communication is key during a crisis. Your employees, customers, board members, communities and a whole range of other stakeholders need to understand what is happening so they know your company cares and is working on a solution.
Get your message out about the situation as soon as possible after identifying the issue. After your initial messaging, your team should set goals for how often it’s going to communicate out messages about the situation – whether it be once in the morning and once at night or just by the end of the day, setting a goal will ensure you are sticking to good communication practices.
Be sure to communicate to both internal and external audiences and provide updates when new developments happen.
It also is important to stick to your company’s voice. If you send out messages that sound nothing like your business’ normal tone and voice, people will perceive it as ingenuine, fake and robotic.
Own Your Mistakes
The worst things a company can do during a crisis is to lie or try to hide the fact that something is wrong. You need to own the mistakes you made (with the guidance of an attorney so your apology for a situation’s effect on a community doesn’t turn into an unintended admission of wrongdoing), apologize for your role and communicate your plan to rectify the situation. The internet is quick to put people on blast for being less than honest. You aren’t going to get away with lies or misinformation, and you shouldn’t even try. People respect honest and authentic companies run by honest and authentic people. If you have something go wrong, come up with a plan to fix the situation, communicate the plan – and don’t hide from it. Organizational reputation management is a marathon and not a sprint – do the things that preserve your credibility for the future.
PR firms employ seasoned crisis counselors for planning and when you need someone to help you right this minute. When in doubt look to experienced PR firms for advice and help and don’t try to go it alone. When your business is mired in a crisis isn’t the time to be penny wise and pound foolish.
Do the Right Thing
The best way to avoid a crisis is to do the right thing. If you notice a process failing, an employee doing something wrong or your company’s values being ignored, do something to solve the issue before it becomes a crisis. Be observant and don’t be afraid to question things that seem off, wrong or out of the ordinary.
You may think crisis communication is finished once the media stops calling and customers are satisfied, but there is still one thing left to do—debrief. To prepare for and even avoid another crisis, you should find out what your team did and didn’t do well. Sending out surveys, conducting focus groups or interviewing employees and customers are all good ways to get feedback.
Finally, you should update your crisis communication plan. Adjust things that didn’t work and add in things that you want to replicate if another crisis arises.
Ask for Help
We can’t emphasize this one enough. If you have a crisis on your hands, ask for help. Whether you look to another business who went through the same situation or you go to your board for advice, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. There are many PR firms out there that specialize in crisis communication and employ rapid response crisis counselors who have spent their careers training to help companies when they need it most. At M3 Group, we have a seasoned team of PR professionals from all backgrounds and with varying expertise. We pride ourselves in taking PR nightmares and turning them into success stories of how a business faced an impossible situation and came out strong on the other side. Whether you use our services or someone else’s, PR firms care about your business and are here to help you get through anything.