Seven Steps To Better Communication When A Crisis Hits

David Landis

This blog originally appeared on Forbes’ website. LCI president and CEO, David Landis, is a member of Forbes San Francisco Business Council – an invitation-only organization for successful entrepreneurs and business leaders in the Bay Area.

As a PR executive with decades of experience, I’ve seen a number of corporate crises that demonstrate a basic lack of communication know-how.

Crises can take many forms: financial, personal, health, safety and more. Difficult situations are bound to arise; how you communicate that to your various audiences can make the difference between deftly managing a company’s reputation and determining a company’s future success or failure. I’ve found that having a communications plan in place prior to a crisis helps business executives navigate those communications when the unexpected happens.

Here are eight steps to help you assess a crisis, communicate with your various audiences and move on successfully:

Be prepared
In the words of the Boy Scouts of America, “Be prepared.” In my experience, getting through a crisis is easier if you’ve taken the time to plan for it. So, gather your C-suite executives, lawyers, operations staff, and human resources and communications teams, and draft a written plan that helps you steer through choppy waters. The plan should include a “hit team” of your company’s leadership professionals who can mobilize quickly during a crisis, as well as potential scenarios, key messages, important phone numbers and spokespeople (have several ready, and media train them in advance). It can also be helpful to have relevant research data included in your plans, such as your company’s history and awards.

Take a deep breath
When a crisis hits, start by taking a breath. Then, ask questions. Gather the facts of what exactly is going on, and don’t let emotions rule the day. Figure out what is true (and false), and take the time to digest the information properly. I’ve observed that people often react too quickly in a crisis before thinking things through and separating fact from fiction. For example: When a public protest hit a retail client of ours, the client’s initial reaction was to fight back. But we advised the client to understand the situation first. We researched information about who was behind the protest – and, more importantly, why. This knowledge helped us develop a statement based on the true facts of the situation.

It’s always best to keep asking, “Why?” Find out as much as you can from several sources, not only your company’s or your clients. Take a step back to truly look at the facts from an objective perspective; don’t assume you know everything until you’ve verified all the information.

Plan your response
After reviewing the facts, plan what kind of response you will make. Think about who it might affect. Take into consideration brand liability versus legal liability, and act accordingly. Make sure to include key decision makers to craft (or sometimes not craft) a knowledgeable response.

Have a written statement at the ready for appropriate audiences and determine how – or if – you will distribute to each segment. Designate appropriate spokespeople, and make sure this statement is reviewed by the executive team.

In general, make sure to:

  • State the facts. Don’t let others define the situation for you. After you’ve gathered the facts, restate them so your audience understands you are basing your actions on legitimate data, not conjecture.
  • Take responsibility. I’ve found that if you don’t take responsibility for your actions, customers and clients might assume you don’t care. Owning up to a problem is half the battle in solving it.
  • Apologize if necessary. Your lawyers might warn you about liability if you choose to apologize. And though legal advice is definitely important to keep in mind, I believe apologizing can help everyone move on and show your audience you are taking the situation seriously.
  • Let your audiences know how you are fixing the problem. Don’t just say you’re sorry. Talk about how you’re going to make sure this situation doesn’t ever happen again in the future. Otherwise, your apology is an empty one.

 

Identify and communicate with relevant audiences
Who is affected by this crisis? Think about customers, employees, board members, shareholders, volunteers, the media and the general public. Articulate a targeted response for each audience. Don’t just think about yourself; put yourself in the shoes of all the people affected by your business, and imagine how they will receive the news. I’ve found this can help you understand what messages will resonate with each audience.

Because we live in a constant news cycle, I believe it’s critical to act quickly. Don’t let time slip by. Remember that how you act within the first couple of hours of a crisis will determine how the public perceives your handling of this issue — and lay the groundwork for your company’s future reputation.

Monitor the lay of the land
Be prepared to monitor news and social media as the crisis unfolds, and adjust your approach and key messages as needed. You can use tools to help with media monitoring and social listening to be able to respond quickly and thoroughly. If the developing crisis requires a shift, have your spokespeople ready to deliver an adjusted message. If you don’t have access to these types of tools, you can also set up alerts to capture any news mentions as the crisis unfolds. I’ve seen that reading the news media firsthand can also help determine the tone of the coverage.

Adjust your plan if necessary
After the crisis, assess what worked and what didn’t, and adjust operational or communications procedures as needed. This way, you’ll be prepared if (or when) another crisis hits.

Don’t forget to say thank you
Just as you likely learned as a child, don’t forget when all is said and done to say thank you to the folks who helped you through the crisis. In the end, business is relationship-driven. I believe earning back the trust of your critical audience is key to having your business move forward.

Crises are never easy and are the true test of leadership. How you react — and how you communicate that to the public — will make all the difference.

Do you have a crisis plan in place? Or do you need some advice? Comment in the box below.

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3 Comments

  1. Ashley Boarman Reply

    Thanks David. I’ve learned so much about crisis communications since working at Landis. I can say that crafting shorter statements is usually better and gathering all the facts is the best place to begin.

  2. Brianne Miller Reply

    Good advice – and our clients benefit from our calm counsel.

  3. Craig MacLellan Reply

    A cool, calm, collected voice at the end of the phone can help to stave off any crisis. Thanks for sharing!