Do you have a plan for when things go wrong? Keep a clear head with a well defined crisis communication strategy.

crisis communicationUnfortunately, no-one is immune to crisis. Bad things happen, and when they do, the way you handle it can make or break your reputation.

Effective crisis communications is the difference between being seen as an empathetic, active organisation and a suspicious, defensive bunch of jerks!

Broadly speaking a crisis is any situation that could cause harm to a person, property, profit or perception.

That last one is important — a crisis can damage your reputation if there is a perception of wrongdoing or negligence — even if there was none.

As important as it is to act quickly and decisively to resolve a crisis, you must also communicate what you’re doing and why. Frankly, if your first response is “no comment”, you’ve failed. Silence or pushback reads like you’ve got something to hide.

There’s one major rule: be prepared. If you’re not prepared when disaster strikes, what could have been a blip on the radar can turn into a full blown catastrophe.

But how can you prepare for the unexpected? It all comes down to proper planning. Luckily, there is a clear process you can follow to keep a clear head when the pressure is on.

Step 1 – Anticipate 

Reading this article has put you a step ahead of most. The key part of preparing for a crisis is understanding that it could happen. Maybe it never will, and you’ll maintain a sparkling clean reputation forever. But as with most things, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

That’s why step one is to anticipate.

Think about everything that could go wrong. While it might seem like a negative exercise, imagine all the things that could possibly happen and how you could prepare for them. These can be great or small, and should be categorised as such. It could be inflammatory comments on your company Facebook page, claims of bullying from a volunteer, or more serious things like theft and fraud.

Then, start thinking about what your response might be, and how you would deliver that message. Draft a template holding statement that can be tailored to different situations should the need arise.

A holding statement is a pre-prepared response so that when a crisis occurs, you can quickly and effectively put out a message. It buys you time, so that if people are coming to your page looking for an answer before you’ve had a chance to properly investigate, they know that you’re on top of the problem and are working towards a solution.

Basically, step one comes down to one simple principle: don’t wait for things to go wrong, get ready now.

Step 2 – People

Your people are key to managing a crisis. Having a crisis management team prepared long before a crisis occurs is key in making sure that everyone’s able to keep a (relatively) level head when things go wrong.

Think about who you might need, and what their role could be.

A board member might be able to provide quick sign off on a response. Someone from the communications team might be able to craft efficient messages. A volunteer might understand what’s going on on-the-ground.

You’ll need to pick spokespeople, too. While the CEO might seem like an obvious choice, remember that you never know when a crisis might happen. That means, pick someone who’s readily available. Or even better, have a few options to fall back on so that you can rest assured that you’ll always have someone ready to speak.

But, whoever it is – make sure they’re well prepared! There’s nothing worse than being put in front of a camera in the midst of a crisis without the proper preparation. Media training any potential spokespeople is vital to make sure that they’re ready to deliver key messages calmly and clearly when they need to.

Step 3 – Process

So, you’ve planned for a range of scenarios. You have your team assembled.

Now you need to understand the process of what you’ll actually do.

Who will draft the response? Who will approve it? Who will send it out?

Whoever it is, the people at the top need to be across it. And the people sending the messages out need to make sure that everything is consistent. What you’re saying on your social media should match what you’re saying to the media, or what’s on your website, or what your receptionist is telling people on the phone.

Step 4 – During the crisis

So, let’s say you’re in a medium sized nonprofit. An employee says he’s been a victim of bullying, and he’s gone public with the claim. What do you do?

First, out goes the holding statement. You’ve tailored it so that it emphasises your commitment to workplace health and safety, and that you’re taking the claim seriously. You’ll have more to say after an internal investigation.

Then, you continue to monitor the news, social media and any other relevant source. Social media means things move quickly, so it’s important to stay on top of what people are saying and react accordingly. This means if people are spreading misinformation, counteract it! Don’t let a lie spread and make things worse for you in the long run. The quicker you can respond to misinformation the better.

But what do you say? There are comments wanting more information, demanding answers. The crisis management team meets and reiterates what was in the holding statement – it’s already been approved, so it can safely be posted (but send a copy of the post to the CEO anyway to keep them in the loop).

Then, it’s time to put out further comment. Your holding statement is out, but that just buys you time. You need to respond further. This will of course be specific to the situation at hand, but in general, make sure you know what can and can’t be said for legal reasons and that you’re only talking in facts.

Along the way, always keep your staff across what’s happening. Internal communications is key, because every message you put out needs to be consistent. If a journalist gets through to an employee who doesn’t know what’s happening, they may inadvertently say something that further spreads the wrong message. If everyone knows what’s going on and what your position is, there’s far less chance of the wrong message coming from inside.

Then, a camera shows up at the door. Interview requests are referred to the spokesperson that we’ve already assigned. They don’t say “no comment”.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, be empathetic at all times. If it’s a situation that is affecting people – like this bullying example – show sympathy for how people are feeling. Apologise if you need to, and address the concerns of victims before anything else.

This is just one example, and it definitely isn’t the required response to every single crisis. The point is to have a clearly defined process for when things do go wrong. You’ll thank yourself later.

Step 5 – Recovery

The dust has settled. The crisis is over. Or is it?

Crises come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s next to impossible to anticipate how long it might last. It could be over in days, a week – or, sometimes, an organisation’s reputation can be damaged for years.

Just because it seems like the crisis is over doesn’t mean it is. Continue monitoring the media and social media, and keep each other updated on whether you think a response is needed. And it’s not just the media – the stories might stop, but are people still thinking about it?

Keep up communications, and remember: acknowledge the people involved, and remain honest and transparent. Afterwards, review everything. Consider how you approached the crisis and think of any possible ways there could be to improve.

Crises are scary, but they don’t have to be the end of the world. If you’re prepared, and willing to be honest, empathetic and responsive, you should be able to come out the other side. Good luck!

Stefan Delatovic is Head of Communications and Strategy at Think HQ, a communications agency working on projects that create social good. He is an experienced journalist and emergency management, communicator.




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