5 Tips for Handling a Communications Crisis
Lately I’ve noticed the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, which was originally commissioned by the British government in 1939 as part of a World War II public safety campaign, popping up at my favorite retail and specialty stores. Each time I see it I always think to myself, “well, that is good advice.” It is a good guideline for life, but also a good guideline for PR professionals planning for and handling a communications crisis.
“Every organization is vulnerable to crises. The days of playing ostrich are gone,” writes Jonathan Berstein of Bernstein Crisis Management in ” The 10 Steps of Cris Communications” on the firm’s website. “You can play, but your stakeholders will not be understanding or forgiving because they’ve watched what happened with Bridgestone-Firestone, Bill Clinton, Arthur Andersen, Enron, Worldcom, 9-11, The Asian Tsunami Disaster, Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Tech.”
These five tips will help organizations “Keep Calm and Carry On” during a communications crisis:
- Be prepared: Create a crisis communication plan for every type of scenario. Murphy’s Law is real – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, so be sure to have exhausted every possible situation when creating a plan. Be sure to share the communication plan with all relevant parties and make sure everyone understands his or her role in the plan. Having a plan before the crisis happens means you won’t waste time trying to figure out what the plan is and who is doing what during the crisis, you’ll already be implementing the plan.
- Say something: Staying silent during a communications crisis is one of the most common mistakes organizations make. Even if the situation is something you don’t have a resolution to at that moment, say something. It may only be that you can say your team is working hard to figure out the problem or create a resolution. It may be that you can share breaking news, but it is important to share information as soon as you can.
- Don’t be afraid to apologize: Apologize, apologize, apologize. An apology (a sincere apology) goes a long way in the court of public opinion during a communications crisis. Acknowledge full responsibility for the mistake (if that is in fact the case) as soon as your can and do not blame others, especially the public.
- Make it right: Everyone has been to a restaurant where his or her order has gotten mixed up. What does the restaurant do? They make it right. They remake the meal and in most cases do not charge for it. Companies need to follow this restaurant rule during a communications crisis. Do whatever you can to make the situation right again. In most cases it will be to reimburse the consumer and give a complimentary service or product and to implement changes so the situation does not happen again.
- Timing is everything: This is relevant to all four of the tips above. Being prepared with a communications plan before the crisis happens is key. Sharing updates and apologizing for the crisis at hand should happen as soon as possible. The longer there is silence and no apology from the company, the harder it will be to come back from the situation. Finding a resolution to the crisis and “making it right” in the consumer’s eyes also should happen as soon as possible. If there is going to be a period of time between the crisis and “making it right” be sure to let the public know in detail what the organization plans to do.