Communication tips – How to handle a crisis

In the late 1990s, Irish crooner Ronan Keating sang ‘…you say it best when you say nothing at all’. But this doesn’t always apply and, unfortunately, far too many people abide by these lyrics when it comes to managing a crisis. In other words, when the proverbial hits the fan, keeping your lips sealed isn’t always the best approach to adopt. Why?

Let’s begin by thinking about the nature of modern communications techniques. Brands love the opportunity to talk to their audiences. B2B and B2C organisations are sending more emails than ever before, they’re curating content on multiple social media channels and a growing number of businesses are even hiring internal comms teams to keep colleagues fully informed and engaged. So, to assume silence following murmurs, accusations or incidents of negativity does nothing but sound alarm bells, guilty or not.

The danger with saying nothing, is that many people will simply make assumptions.

Of course, serious/reputable journalists will make sure they get their facts right and they won’t seek to sensationalise a story like some ‘rags’ may be tempted to do. But brands don’t just have to tell their side of the story to the media in times of trouble. There is the public to think about too and, in the age of user-generated content, ‘people power’ cannot be underestimated.

So how should a brand react to some undesirable news? It’s impossible to outline a single ‘best practice’ course of action, as every individual scenario will be different and some may have legal implications/sensitivities that also need to be taken into account.

But brands should begin by devising a precautionary ‘crisis management’ strategy that can be implemented as and when it is required. This will then act as a clear plan, understood by all involved, which details things such as the ‘chain of command’, relevant spokespeople, who should comment on what subjects, which communication channels should be used, general ‘dos and don’ts’, and the contact details of any third parties who need to be consulted, for example.

In many cases, the longer a brand waits to offer some form of response, the more control they could lose. However, by making a considered statement, however short, at a pertinent time, there is still the chance to control the coordination of communications. There is also the opportunity to reassure, to offer condolence, to share advice, to placate the situation or perhaps just avoid it becoming worse (depending on the nature of the ‘crisis’).

If a statement is made, there is no need to ‘over-fluff’:

  • Stick to succinct points rather than anything that could be misinterpreted or viewed as insincere.

  • Decide, as a team (as per the crisis management plan) what absolutely needs to be said, and don’t elaborate beyond that.

  • Try to focus on some positives, but, if the floor is yours, don’t abuse the situation as a PR opportunity.

  • Show that you are taking action, even if all you can say at the time is that an allegation is being taken seriously and steps are being taken to investigate or rectify the situation, for example.

  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

  • Above all, remember that nothing is ever 100% ‘off the record’!

In true times of crisis, resources naturally become stretched, especially from a communications perspective. But as soon as it is genuinely possible and sensitive to do so, efforts should then turn to rebuilding the reputation of a brand and conveying more positive messages about the business concerned.

It is important to realise that there are instances where silence speaks volumes. It can signify the utter dismissal of a false claim that doesn’t even merit a response. However, not all brands/individuals hold the authority or credence to act in this manner.

In some cases, silence can also shut a story down. Particularly emotive matters can often subside as quickly as they flared up, meaning there is little point saying anything in the heat of the moment. However, as eluded to above, every scenario is different, which is why generic advice is so hard to give.

If your business is ever unfortunate enough to encounter a ‘crisis’, large or small, this will be a situation where you naturally need to remain agile and alert. However, having the bones of a plan in place will ensure you are equipped to tackle the challenge, should it rears its head.

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Written by Ruth Harrison-Davies

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