The success of any business, utility or organization rests firmly on its reputation. That’s why businesses, nonprofit organizations, governments, universities and individuals hire public relations professionals to portray them as beneficial, trustworthy and concerned members of the community.
But, all that careful image crafting can be destroyed by one poorly handled crisis. A “crisis,” in public relations terms, is any event that draws intense, negative media coverage and interferes with normal business activity. Crises can cost organizations millions of dollars to repair or can potentially put them out of business for good.
Crisis communication is part of an overall crisis management plan designed by upper-level management and public relations professionals to reduce the potential damage caused by a crisis. Specifically, crisis communication refers to the flow of information during a crisis among an organization, its employees, the media, the government, law enforcement and the general public.
The work of crisis communication is two-fold — preparation and response. To prepare for a crisis, an organization must create a detailed crisis communication plan with a crisis communication team assigned to execute the plan. With a plan in place, an organization is more likely to respond to a crisis quickly, take immediate steps to control the message and successfully regain the public’s trust.
A crisis communication plan is a type of insurance policy for the long-term health of an organization. Failure to address and contain a crisis can have lasting consequences for an organization. In this article, we’ll explain how crisis communication works before, during and after a crisis:
Crises have the potential to ignite a media frenzy — or worse, widespread panic in the general public. The middle of a crisis is no time to start assembling a crisis management team or to begin reaching out to the media. By mapping out a clear, workable crisis communication plan early (and revising it often), an organization can emerge from a potential disaster with its image intact or perhaps even enhanced.
1. Crisis communication team
The job of a crisis communication team is to create and execute the overall crisis communication plan. Team members are assigned specific roles, such as gathering contact information from all employees or establishing relationships with members of the local media. Depending on the organization’s size, a typical crisis communication team could include:
• The CEO
• The head of public relations
• Vice presidents and managers of key departments
• The safety or security officer
• Company lawyers
The first job of the crisis communication team is to select an official spokesperson. The spokesperson will be the primary contact for all media inquiries. They will run all press conferences and give most interviews during a crisis. They should be very experienced in working with both print and broadcast media.
The spokesperson must be extremely knowledgeable about the organization and be comfortable in front of a TV camera, with the ability to project calm and inspire confidence. They also should know how to condense complicated arguments into key talking points and how to stress those points in an interview without appearing to avoid tough questions.
2. Internal communications manager.
The internal communications manager is tasked to look after the safety of all employees and constituents, which could include clients, vendors, neighbors and community leaders. If a crisis like a fire or a school shooting occurs, the internal communications manager works with police and emergency officials to communicate essential information to all involved, such as employees, staff, teachers, students and parents.
During the crisis communication planning stage, the internal communications manager collects contact information from all employees and constituents. This contact information must be exhaustive (home and mobile phone numbers, email address and updated frequently.
He or she must consider implementing an emergency notification system to reach thousands of constituents instantly. Many subscription services allow an individual to send an emergency message to all communications platforms simultaneously (text message, e-mail).
Through these services, a notification can be initiated over the Web, via e-mail or even over the phone. One major advantage of subscription emergency notification systems is that employees and constituents can update their own contact information directly into the system and set preferences for the best way to be reached in an emergency.
3. Media Strategy
There is need to establish and maintain relationships with the local media before a crisis occurs. Media relations are one of the chief responsibilities of Public Relations so this job would go to the team member with the most public relations experience.
What’s important is cultivating a relationship of openness and trust between the organization and the reporters who cover it. This is done by pitching stories, ideas and expert commentary to reporters in good times, not just times of crisis. The media relations specialist should keep an updated list of all local and national reporters who cover the industry, their contact information and their deadlines.
If the organization already has a blog, it can be an effective tool for communicating during a crisis. Blogs have several advantages over traditional media or press releases:
• Blogging is immediate. It allows an organization to respond very quickly to evolving public concerns and to correct misrepresentations in the media.
• Video and photo capabilities of blogs allow for near real-time coverage of how an organization is working to resolve the crisis.
• Because of the nature of blogging (open and candid), a blog can put a human face on the organization in crisis.
• The public can make comments and ask questions directly on the blog, creating an excellent forum for dispelling rumors and clarifying an organization’s message.
Even if an organization doesn’t already have a blog, some experts recommend the creation of a “stealth blog” that can be launched quickly if a crisis arises. As part of the crisis communication planning stage, team members can use the list of weaknesses and vulnerabilities to build “lockbox blogs” with messages tailored to address all potential crises.
As part of the pre-crisis media strategy, it’s smart to establish relationships with prominent industry and local bloggers, not just print and broadcast journalists. These “blogging allies” could be a powerful source of grassroots, word-of-mouth press to combat negative reports in the mainstream media.
4. List of Potential Weaknesses
In the general practice of crisis management, it’s recommended that a company or organization undergo an honest self assessment to predict where potential crises may arise. Sometimes an outside public relations firm may need to be hired to examine fully the organization for lapses in ethical or legal judgment. The crisis communication team studies this list of potential crises and drafts talking points.
Fact Sheets and Other Documents. As part of the crisis communications plan, someone needs to maintain up-to-date fact sheets about the organization and its programs. If a crisis occurs, this information can be distributed to reporters at press conferences or during interviews.
Directly after a crisis, the organization at fault must compensate the victims. Experts recommend that the organization act quickly to provide restitution. If the victims receive compensation immediately, the crisis is less likely to linger in the press. The cost of quickly resolving the issue also will be far less than if the organization waits for litigation.
The organization needs to make a bold commitment to ensure the errors that caused the crisis will never happen again. Precautionary measures should go well beyond the expectations of the public.
After the crisis has died down, the organization should establish an assessment group to determine which parts of the crisis communication plan worked and which need to be revised. A separate assessment group should examine the root causes of the disaster and decide what steps need to be taken to prevent future occurrences.
As a final act of crisis communications, experts recommend that an organization go public with its self-assessment. This gives the community further proof that the organization takes the crisis very seriously and has safeguards in place to avoid even the threat of such a crisis happening again.