Much has been written about Crisis PR, rife with examples of doing it wrong or doing it right. We often get asked to provide a quick reference for managing challenging public relations situations. Keep in mind that “public” doesn’t mean “the public” as a whole, but rather represents the group of people or institutions who are the intended audience for the communication efforts of the individual or business in crisis. And, that this quick guide to crisis PR is written from a strategic perspective. Tactical implementations (how you achieve authentically addressing perceptions, for instance) will vary based on who is having the crisis and who needs to be influenced regarding it.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: Have a plan. Crisis communication is going to, at some point, be a need for every business or brand. It’s a “when” question, not an “if” question. Define the likely (and less likely, but most critical) scenarios, and for each:
- Decide whom will be communicating on behalf of the organization. It’s easiest if you have a defined spokesperson, so that this person or role will be THE person for most situations, but it’s not always possible.
- Decide how that person will have access to the facts and information they need to effectively do their job.
- In a crisis, who will contact whom, and when? How will the spokesperson get the word that a crisis is at hand? Where do people involved physically need to go, and what do they need to do when they get there?
- How will information flow during the crisis? Who has the authority to verify information as fact, and of those facts, which are releasable facts at what point in time, along the way? Any crisis communication plan is only as good as the information flow it generates.
Then, after you have the basics of your general flow defined, ensure your tactical plan includes:
- Facts First: Define the facts, provide appropriate context. Clarify what is perception and what is fact in the situation at hand. Be precise with the language. How will you continue to communicate? Set expectations for when the next update will come, or what kinds of information will and will not be available.
- Authentically Address Perceptions: Display (and mean it) appropriate concern or involvement. Regardless of the truth of the accusations/situation, people/ publics ARE concerned. That concern should be addressed authentically and honestly. Telling people “don’t be concerned” doesn’t work. Telling people the truth, and allowing them the opportunity to unconcern themselves, does. Perception is reality for each individual and the only two things that ever have or ever will change perception are communication/information and actual experience.
- Close the Loop: Seek ways to see if perceptions actually are changing… gather feedback from the public or constituencies you are trying to influence. It is absolutely necessary in order to gauge the effectiveness of the crisis communications, to identify emerging issues (good or bad), and to appropriately structure further communication.
- Rinse, Repeat: The message, if complex, will likely require multiple layers/channels of communication and multiple instances of communication. Influencing perceptions via communication and information is a process, not an event. Engaging your online and offline community can help. More on that later. But if you have networks who can amplify your message/communications, engaging them can help.
- Be Available: If you are the person charged with communicating, recognize that the rhythm of crisis communication can be fast, furious, and all-consuming until the crisis is past. If you are supporting the person who is doing the communicating, be as available as you can be to help gather, verify, monitor, and otherwise assist in the execution of the plan until the crisis has passed.
- Evaluate your Efforts: After everyone has caught their breath, take a moment and look at what happened from the communication side. What went well? What didn’t? Does the plan need to be changed now that it has been battle-tested?
Finally: Communicate the plan thoroughly to everyone involved, and let those who may be impacted know it exists and how to access it. Anyone who needs to take action in a crisis should know the plan well enough to execute on it without looking it up.
Implementing a solid crisis PR plan requires available information, someone appropriate with a willingness to be interviewed and the will to prepare well for being interviewed, a willingness to address perceptions calmly – even when they are demonstrably false – and a commitment to the long-term process of communication. That means communities will have to be engaged and motivated – and that the time for community building is BEFORE the crisis looms. Building a community is beyond the scope of this post, but your plan should include how to engage yours in crisis.