Brand Storytelling

Your Crisis Communication Guide

I wrote dozens of posts like this for Beekeeper, a frontline communications platform for business.

Remember when 2019 had crisis communication professionals working overtime?

There was the famous “Varsity Blues” scandal which revealed that officials at elite colleges had accepted bribes from prominent families to admit their kids. Academic and celebrity careers alike vaporized as those involved spun their stories to the media with varying degrees of sincerity.

And who could forget the opioid crisis that swept the globe and eventually found Big Pharma worthy of public disapproval? At least one manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, took the spotlight in the blame game when museums refused or returned donations from the company in light of the scandal.

Naturally, not all crisis communications will involve a public scandal. Just as often (as we’ve seen in 2020) unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances can take on many forms from natural disasters to global pandemics like the one we’re currently facing.

What Is Crisis Communication?

At its core, crisis communication can be defined as the activities around protecting and defending the reputation of an individual or organization when publicly challenged. The fact of the matter is if you or your organization isn’t prepared for a crisis, the consequences can be dire. 

Why Crisis Communication Matters Now More Than Ever

Given the real-time nature of our era’s media, developing the ability to communicate effectively and quickly is paramount to addressing issues as they arise. Without this core competency, the ability to respond will fail at an operational level. Confusion on the part of those with vested interests in your organization will rapidly boil over into anger, frustration, and public backlash. 

Moreover, your organization could be found legally responsible and/or inept resulting in greater damage to its reputation and ultimately its ability to function financially.

Taking the Crisis Management Initiative

Underlying most crisis communication theory is a truth that cannot be ignored — it’s not merely what you say that counts, but when you say it. The rule of thumb is that it’s generally best to start communication as soon as reasonably possible so long as the message is clear and aligns with your crisis communication strategies.

“When business continuity and emergency management professionals talk about effective response capability, they often mention the ‘Golden Hour,’” writes Tim Janes, chair of the Business Continuity Institute, in its Emergency Communications Report 2019. 

“This is the earliest time period following a catastrophic event when those in charge of the immediate response aim to establish stability and control – to understand the situation, assemble resources, notify key stakeholders, anticipate issues and begin to consider response options.”

According to the Business Continuity Institute’s report, the key success indicators for companies facing crisis were: 

  • Timeliness — 84% of companies that reported successful outcomes had activated their plans within an hour of an issue.
  • Escalation — Likewise, 67% of respondents escalated their communications to their top management within one hour.

Time is not your side — so what is? 

Using Crisis Management Theory

The Unequal Human Capital Theory refers to situations that occur when people within a community perceive that they are not treated as fairly as others in the same shared community.

In a business context, this means that when a crisis occurs, a group of stakeholders that feel sidelined may seize the moment to intentionally share public opinions that conflict with the image the organization is trying to preserve. When your internal stakeholders do not feel valued by the organization, they may be tempted to take advantage of the chaos caused by a crisis event. 

When you bring all of your employees and stakeholders together and provide a way for them to make a meaningful contribution when addressing a crisis, you’ve ventured into the territory of Diffusion of Innovation Theory

Lean into your company values and invite your team to help in the heavy lifting of managing the moment. At worst, it spreads the burden — at best it can be a morale booster and inspire everyone to bring their A-game

To that end, Structural Functions Systems Theory engages every level of your management team in an effort to maintain open and transparent communication throughout the crisis. Why? 

Because the appearance of maneuvering behind the scenes will only contribute to speculation that a secret agenda is being pursued. Basically, don’t act like there’s something to hide when there is in fact nothing to hide.  

Sometimes managing a crisis also means managing the chatter around the crisis. Without a working familiarity with crisis communication theory, a wedge can develop between public perception and reality that can be difficult to undo.  

More On Crisis Communication Theory

Among the leading thinkers in the crisis communication space is Texas A&M University professor W. Timothy Coombs, who is perhaps best known for developing Situation Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT). 

In its essence, SCCT recommends that leaders strategically match their responses to match the level of their organization’s responsibility and the extent of the possible reputational damage to occur.

SCCT draws some of its underlying assumptions from Attribution Theory, which suggests that humans are predisposed to searching for the underlying causes of certain events and eagerly seek to attribute them to someone or something. 

This is especially true when those events are perceived as negative. People tend to react to negative situations emotionally, and they have a desire to find a “cause and effect” relationship to explain complex situations

So where do you start when putting together your crisis communication strategies?

A Guide to Crisis Communication Strategies 

The Institute for Public Relations (IPR), a Florida-based nonprofit whose mission is “fostering greater use of research and research-based knowledge in public relations and corporate communication practice,” strongly advocates for having a plan in place should a crisis occur.

A crisis management plan is a reference tool, not a blueprint,” reminds IPR. 

Besides having a list of key contact information, it also reminds us “what should typically be done in a crisis.” 

Fortunately, there are a number of crisis communication strategies that can help mitigate negative outcomes

Below is a list of seven crisis communications to-dos that can help you and your team prepare the tools necessary to do the job we sincerely hope you never have to do.

7 Crisis Communication Strategies to Help Businesses Get Prepared 

  1. Prevention is the Best Medicine: Pre-Crisis Analysis

If a crisis is predictable, it’s preventable. The start of any crisis management initiative should come with an audit of your organization’s vulnerabilities and where potential failures may occur. 

Like every person, every company has a story — learn yours inside and out. Obviously avoiding a crisis in the first place is preferable, but when circumstances are beyond your control, at least know why.   

  1. Go “Team Crisis:” Know Your Key Players

Identify and assemble a team of leaders within the organization who can serve as a crisis communications team. This may include your CEO, legal counsel and public relations personnel, as well as those on staff who have a strong presence with your colleagues and the community at large. 

Perhaps you have people in-house who have specialized knowledge specific to your industry or are known as experts in their field. If necessary — consider retaining an outside public relations firm that can handle your crisis management initiative. Having a team ready and reachable when a crisis occurs will help diminish internal chaos and lay the groundwork for recovery.

  1. Step up to the Mic: Choosing a Spokesperson

In the beloved Dr. Seuss book The Lorax, the main character declares that “I speak for the trees.” 

In this day and age, most people carry a device in their pocket capable of broadcasting to the world, but that doesn’t always mean they should. There’s value in knowing what to say, but there’s even more value in knowing how to say it. Carefully choose your crisis team’s “Lorax” who will speak on behalf of the organization as a whole. 

The right message conveyed the wrong way can be even more damaging than having a poorly conceived message in the first place. A flat delivery could be perceived as insincere, while overly expressive messaging may read as dishonest. Finding the right tone is key.

Selecting an appropriate spokesperson well ahead of a crisis and making sure they’re trained and rehearsed on a variety of messaging styles could make a big difference in how your messaging is perceived. 

The spokesperson that is chosen to represent the organization in a crisis situation should undergo professional media training. (There’s a variety of resources available from a range of providers.)

  1. What to Say: Holding Statements

Once your team is in place and your spokesperson selected, it’s time for an exercise that you will thank yourself later for doing later — write some “holding statements.” 

These are pre-scripted remarks that allow your team to speak to an emerging crisis situation even if all the facts are still coming in. This is a language that attests to your organization’s awareness of unfolding events and its commitment to transparency and accountability. 

“Presently, we’ve assembled our crisis team and are placing the health and safety of our employees above all else,” is an example of the kind of holding message frequently used during a crisis. 

The more holding statements you have across a variety of potential scenarios, the better prepared your spokesperson will be should the need arise. That said, avoid cliches like “We send our thoughts and prayers,” or other sentiments that have become fodder for memes and other public criticisms.

  1. Know Your Channels:  Inventory Messaging Platforms

“Information wants to be free,” famously wrote Stewart Brand, the editor of the seminal counterculture tome Whole Earth Catalog. 

In a crisis, information wants to travels fast, and in many directions at once. Set it free by having numerous channels available to share your message. 

From social media platforms and blogs to phone trees and email lists, redundancy is a key part of good crisis communication strategies. It’s also a good idea to have a mobile strategy in place in the event of a natural disaster and power lines or landline phones are down.

At the very least, the mobile numbers for your crisis management team should be on everyone’s personal devices. Many messaging apps let you organize lists for group texting. Create a crisis management call list so that you can instantly connect with and activate your team at the same time. 

To that end, as a mobile-first platform for business continuity management, Beekeeper has been used as a crisis management tool by some customers for their emergency support communication.

  1. Listen and Learn: Monitoring Media

The old phrase “keep an ear to the ground” comes from an old horseman’s practice of literally lowering one’s ear to the surface of the earth to detect the sound waves of horses’ hooves from miles away. 

When it comes to monitoring the media, especially social media, there are often clues as to the public perceptions that are forming. If you’re not prepared, these perceptions could very well come galloping into the narrative of your crisis. 

By listening and looking for new developments on your various channels, your team can determine how to clarify and augment your messaging accordingly. Monitoring the rumblings in your channels can also help you isolate concerns that might not have surfaced for your team, but are top of mind for others in your organization or the community it serves. 

  1. Rinse, Wash, Repeat: Analyzing and Improving

Once your crisis has passed, it’s always a good idea to conduct an analysis of what was successful in your crisis communications strategy and what can be improved

Some key questions to ask yourself could include: 

  • Was the outcome desirable?
  • Was there a best-case scenario?
  • Was there a worst-case scenario? 
  • How can your crisis communication team be better prepared in the event of another emergency? 

Most crisis management theory recommends rehearsing and running crisis drills, which can help your team anticipate potential hiccups that might occur in real-life scenarios. That said, the hope is always to restore order and recover ASAP.

“Some corporate emergencies may never become known to the public, while others can be the fodder of news reports, international headlines, and social media posts,” says crisis management expert Edward Segal, author of Crisis Ahead: 101 Ways to Prepare for and Bounce Back from Disasters, Scandals, and Other Emergencies

“One crisis may blow over in a day, while another could drag on for days, weeks, or months. No matter what the crisis is or how it impacts an organization, it is absolutely essential to put it behind you and get back to normal as quickly as possible.”