At some point, nearly every organization will experience a crisis.
For many, unfortunately, their crisis planning strategy is denial: “that will never happen to our company.” Except that it probably will. Sooner than you think. When all hell breaks loose, consider these “truths” of a crisis as you wade in to manage your organization’s reputation, brand and communication strategy.
- There will be short-term pain, there can be long-term gain. Try to stay calm and objective. There is no reason that short-term pain has to turn into long-term damage to the organization. For those who are well prepared and handle a crisis well, reputation, loyalty and long-term results may actually improve.
- Communicate immediately. Right now. Or else. Chances are that the situation will already be public, so you have to move quickly. Even if the first communication is simply to acknowledge that something has occurred, let people know that you are looking into the matter and will share more information as soon as you know it. This approach better positions the company to become the media’s main source for information during the crisis, and helps manage perceptions in the court of public opinion.
- Focus first and foremost on the victims. The very first thing you say should focus on the needs and safety of employees, customers and others who may be impacted. A simple, heartfelt statement that makes it clear that the people are your first priority will go a long way to building trust and credibility with media and other stakeholders.
- “No comment” is a no-go. Stakeholders will– rightly or wrongly– assume guilt in the absence of a comment from the organization. You might as well just say that you don’t care about the situation, because that is how your silence will be interpreted. Remember, reporters, bloggers and “citizen journalists’ will cover the story whether you cooperate or not. And if you don’t tell the company’s story, someone else will, likely fueling more negative coverage.
- Hope is not a strategy. We’re all human, and we can’t help but want to avoid telling the parts of the story that make us look bad, hoping they won’t come to light. But rest assured, the facts will come out, one way or another. And if they don’t come from the company, its integrity is questioned, and trust can be irreparably damaged. You can better control the information if you release it on your terms.
- Facts are important, but they are not everything. In a crisis, the facts can quickly be masked by emotion and perception. An effective response will consider the concerns of the company’s stakeholders, and include the “human element” along with the facts.
Related: 9 Questions to Ask During a Crisis
Deborah Hileman, SCMP is President and CEO of the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM), a consulting firm specializing in crisis management and communications planning, training and consulting services. Founded in 1990, ICM clients include public and private companies, non-profit organizations, education and religious institutions, government agencies and other organizations in North America and across the globe.
A certified strategic communication management professional (SCMP), business leader, coach and consultant with more than 30 years’ experience in public and private companies and non-profit organizations, her most significant areas of expertise include strategic communications planning and crisis management, media relations, change management, employee engagement and training. She has taught hundreds of professionals to develop effective crisis strategy and messaging and to handle difficult media interviews with confidence and skill.
Known as a voice of calm amid chaos and crisis, Ms. Hileman has earned a reputation as a trusted communication strategist and advisor to board members and C-suite executives, operations leaders and other organizational stakeholders. She has developed and implemented successful communication strategies for numerous business issues, including natural disasters, labor strikes, workplace violence, wrongful death, food safety concerns, harassment and abuse investigations, social media attacks and cybercrime, mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies, closures and layoffs, controversial development plans, criminal prosecutions and federal civil investigations, employee malfeasance and investor litigation, among others.
A regular writer and blogger on business communication topics, she is the author of “Attorneys as Allies: Balancing Stakeholder Needs with Legal Concerns During a Crisis”, published in the Writer’s Guidebook, Vol.2, PR News Press; “Building a Crisis Early Warning System by Empowering Employees to Speak Up”, published in The Book of Employee Communications Strategies & Tactics, vol. 5, PR News Press, and “In a Snap: 15 Tips for Faster, More Effective Employee Communications in a Crisis”, published in The Book of Crisis Management Strategies and Tactics, Vol. 8, PR News Press. Contact Deb at [email protected].