By its very nature, when a crisis hits you will be on the back-foot. But this is when the preparation you have done in advance, often many years ahead, will kick-in and the plan that was developed especially for this purpose will save your bacon. If you don’t have a plan, then our advice is to develop one now.
When a crisis strikes, it is important not to respond in a knee-jerk fashion and your plan will allow you to respond efficiently. It will take you through the steps you need to take to ensure that your response is appropriate and proportionate.
One of the most important things is to make sure you have a spokesperson who is well trained. Media training is essential for everyone and the skills needs to be practised to keep them fresh and ensure that when they’re needed the spokesperson is able to deliver clear, unflustered messages that are factual and reassuring. In most cases, journalists will want to conduct their own interviews with company spokespeople who will, ideally be someone from within the company rather than an external consultant. There are some simple and very effective techniques that all trained spokespeople should be able to employ in live interview situations. If you’re the designated spokesperson, preparation is always the best ammunition; anticipate the questions that will be asked, even the ones you hope won’t be, and prepare your answers, sticking to the facts and remembering that you represent the company, brand and reputation. In all but a very few circumstances, interviews will be edited down to less than a couple of minutes, in most cases just 30 seconds or so. So, be mindful of this when you’re talking and find ways to repeat your core message so that however the interview is edited, this message will be delivered loud and clear.
In times of crisis it is always important that your spokesperson expresses concern for the potential impact of the situation, whether it will have a direct or indirect effect on individual people, communities, the environment or wildlife. Never underestimate the power of empathy for taking the heat out of a situation.
If your company doesn’t have a spokesperson confident and able to deliver interviews, then the best advice is always to put your comment in writing – a written statement is far better than no statement at all and, if it’s in writing, you have complete control of your messaging.
Don’t try to hide
Bad news will not go away and should not be buried. Think back to some of the massive media issues we have witnessed in our time and in many cases there was an initial attempt to bury or disguise the bad news – Edwina Curry and the salmonella in eggs crisis is a great example; the egg industry learned, at its great cost, that burying their heads was not the solution and it took them many years and the invention of a new quality lion mark to bring their industry back from the brink. Those were the days before the Internet even existed and you can just imagine the magnified impact of a crisis like that now with the speed of social media. One ill-advised word from a spokesperson these days can spread across the globe in minutes.
As well as a reliable front-person, you also need a team in the background, who are responsible for the various different aspects of investigating the causes and managing the effects of the crisis, to bring the situation under control. A simple, fast channel of communication involving these key people is essential and can be written into the crisis plan well before problems arise.
There should always be just one point of contact for the media – if journalists obtain their information from several sources the messages will undoubtedly become confused and it will be more difficult to contain stakeholders’ interest and concern. There will ideally be a team of people behind this first point of contact to handle the volume of enquiries that may arise.
Inform all other staff that they are not to engage with the media and make sure you give them adequate information and/or training in how not to engage – journalists can be extremely persistent and will use many ‘tricks’ to get the inside track if they feel the resulting story may be worth it.
Never, ever say ‘no comment’. This simply implies guilt. Much better to give a comment that provides very little information if that information isn’t yet available and will satisfy the media that action is being taken, for example ‘we are aware that xyz and an internal investigation is being conducted’.
Keep in mind that there is no such thing as ‘off the record’. It is a journalist’s job to find news and they will invest time in building relationships to get their story – remember that no matter how friendly they may seem, they can and will use your words to get their scoop.
Make friends on social
Social media can be your friend and your enemy in times of crisis. One of the important elements of your crisis plan will be the monitoring of and response to on-line conversations. Great crisis communicators will use the relationships they’ve built up with customers and suppliers on social media to their advantage when a crisis strikes. These people, loyal to your business, can provide an independent and objective endorsement of the company, its practices and ethos and, as long as they are treated with respect and honesty, will support the company’s position. Remember that the vast majority of journalists are active on Twitter and use it as a source for stories, so take advantage of this to spread your reassuring messages in times of crisis.
Video forms an integral part of many communications strategies these days and can be used effectively in a crisis too to deliver a clear, personal message to stakeholders which can be posted easily across many owned platforms, as well as being offered to the media. A crisis will never happen at a convenient time, so ensure that you have a process in place for fast and efficient filming of statements at all times of day and night.
Finally, don’t forget that your employees can and should be your most valuable ambassadors. While they may have been instructed not to speak to the media, they will be talking with clients, suppliers, colleagues, family and friends, so make sure they are well informed as soon as a crisis happens so that they’re able to clearly communicate the ‘party line’.