Crisis communication: How to prepare for the unthinkable

Right now, all marketing and public relations professionals, whether in government, politics or industry, find themselves suddenly in an era of crisis communications during these unprecedented times.  The novel coronavirus continues to spread around the globe and each day brings new changes and challenges to societies and business.

In the public relations world, people interpret crisis communication differently depending on whom you ask, but here’s the fundamental definition:  Crisis communication is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation.

The communication scholar Timothy Coombs defines a crisis as "the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectancies of stakeholders and can seriously impact an organization's performance and generate negative outcomes.  He describes crisis communication as "the collection, processing, and dissemination of information required to address a crisis situation.”

It’s the reverse of traditional public relations, where you’re trying to acquire the attention and approval of third parties. Crisis communications turns that on its head in that you need to deal with and manage and contain negative earned media.

Crisis management should not merely be reactionary; it should also consist of preventative measures and preparation in anticipation of potential crises. Effective crisis management can greatly reduce the amount of damage to an organization as a result of the crisis and may even prevent an incident from developing further. A classic model of crisis management handled correctly was the Tylenol scare of 1982.

In many ways, it’s analogous to putting out a fire (though nowhere near as dangerous as what actual firefighters do, or at this time, what our healthcare workers do, and for that we salute them). A fire requires three things to burn – heat (energy), fuel, and oxygen. Take away any one of those elements and the fire goes out. Firefighters most often deny fire its heat through the use of water, taking away its energy. For smaller fires, we can choke its ability to burn quickly with a fire extinguisher.

In a crisis communications situation, something has gone wrong, and you need to protect your company’s or organization’s brand from the fire. The three phases to combat the crisis situation or fire are:

1.     Pre-crisis: preparing for crisis management in an effort to prevent a future crisis from occurring.

2.     In-crisis: the response to an actual crisis event.

3.     Post-crisis: occurs after the crisis has been resolved.

Pre-crisis: Planning is always a step head of the risk

  • Researching and collecting information about crisis risks specific to the organization.
  • Creating a crisis management plan that includes making decisions ahead of time about who will handle specific aspects of a crisis if and when it occurs.
  • Preparing press release templates for the organization's public relations team in the event of a crisis.
  • The chain of command that all employees will follow in the dissemination of information to all publics during a crisis situation. One voice should be used by all.
  • At this stage the communication professional focuses on detecting and identifying possible risks that could result in a crisis.

In-crisis: Knowledge and Speed is key

Provide correct knowledge and information. By doing this, you take away the rumor mill and word of mouth. Very often in a crisis, people fill in gaps of knowledge with their own suspicions. Take away that speculation with facts, and there’s less for their minds to imagine. In addition, being transparent and truthful buys an organization enormous goodwill long term, after the crisis has passed.

The faster you react and respond, the quicker you deny a crisis the chance to ramp up and get out of control. In effect, you take oxygen out of the equation. Speed is critical in most crises and what could be an explosive backdraft if allowed to build up can instead be controlled to a slow, manageable burn.

Crisis communication tactics during the crisis stage may include the following:

  • The collection and processing of pertinent information to the crisis management team in a timely manner. Here, speed is key for decision making.
  • Developing messages under one voice, with strong consideration of sensitivity of the organization and the public receiving the messages.

Post-crisis: Now what? Learning from the lessons

  • Deliver all information promised to stakeholders as soon as that information is known.
  • Update stakeholders on the progression of recovery efforts including any corrective measures being taken and the progress of investigations.
  • Scan the social media channels for online comments and messages.
  • Consult with victims and their families to determine the organization's role in any events or memorials.
  • Analyze the crisis management effort for lessons and integrate those lessons into the organization's crisis-management system.

Finally, as with real-world fires, the more effective you are in implementing these crisis communications methods, the smaller the fire will grow and the faster it can put it out.

Stay safe and healthy!

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Michelle Clancy