In the age of camera phones, close-circuit TV, and front-door surveillance, there’s little hiding from anyone anymore. Forget Big Brother. Your next-door neighbor probably knows more about you. People are unpredictable, life is chaotic, and weather is becoming more extreme. Crises are a part of the human condition. We can’t do anything to prevent them, but we can prepare for them. Consider the 5-T approach to crisis communications.
Regardless of the size of your organization, you should have a crisis-communications team comprising key decision makers and legal representation that meets at least on a quarterly basis to discuss things that can go wrong and how to deal with them. At your first meeting, brainstorm what these things could be: racist or sexist comments made by employees or board members, the discovery of an unsavory past, misuse of company funds or embezzlement, someone doing something they shouldn’t do at a Zoom meeting and having it seen on video. The list goes on, and your list will be particular to your company. Discuss scenarios and strategize responses. Designate a media spokesperson for your company.
You should develop two plans side-by-side, one for external communications and one for internal communications. It’s just as important to keep your internal constituents informed as is the outside world, particularly if the problem stems from someone on the inside. If it’s important that your employees shouldn’t be talking to the media, or if you want them to know key messages, you need to communicate that to them. The leadership has a responsibility to keep its employees informed — if you don’t, they will be left to speculate, which can create a secondary crisis of its own.
Timeliness is two-fold. As soon as the crisis hits, the team should gather immediately (virtually or physically), and communications should follow quickly. We live in an age of hypermobility. If there’s a mass shooting somewhere on the West Coast, people on the East Coast receive news alerts about it in 10 minutes or less, even when there is nothing more than a headline to report. A timely response is imperative, which makes regularly crisis-communications planning integral to maintaining the public trust in your organization.
When the team meets, it should have drafts of tactics for dealing with the different scenarios it has already identified as potential crises. But each crisis is nuanced, so the tactics will need to be refined and revised. Your strategy is always going to be the same: honestly communicate the crisis, maintain the public trust, and do not harm the brand of your organization. All of the tactics you develop should support this strategy. Do not go overboard with tactics at the beginning of a crisis because this could dilute or confuse your messaging. Begin with 3-5 tactics. As the crisis develops, you can always add more tactics as necessary.
As you begin to craft your actual messaging for the crisis communications, you want to be mindful of your audiences, both internal and external. Most likely, you will be dealing with high-voltage emotions, so you want to be understanding and responsive. You will also need to walk a fine line between expressing empathy and responsibility because the latter could get you into legal hot water, which is why it is important to have legal representation on your crisis-communications team.
The surest way to turn the public against you is to lie to them, or tell half-truths, particularly in a crisis situation. And this can become tricky when you are obligated, on one hand, to keep confidentiality or not talk about certain aspects of company policy when, on the other hand, you want to keep the public apprised of how you are dealing with a crisis. But you can be honest about what you are able and not able to say. You should be transparent about your communications from the get-go, even when you cannot reveal all of the details.
If you don’t already have a crisis-communications team and plan with pre-determined tactics, it’s overdue. Develop one now and work thorough mock crises with your team. Thoughtfulness and transparency are attributes of your communications, and timeliness is the most important aspect of executing the overall plan.
Gigi Marino is a senior publicist at Otter PR in Orlando, Fla. She has 25 years of experience of working in higher communications and is a poet and essayist.