Ward to the Wise

RED ALERT! How To Survive A Media Crisis

crisis-managementAs our series on media topics draws to a close, we focus on how to work with media during a crisis. No communication is more time-critical, sensitive or challenging than what’s exchanged between a corporate spokesperson and a reporter during a crisis. The very nature of a crisis presents myriad obstacles that must be maneuvered around and managed – since the control you exert is limited. Remember, crises are temporary and, one hopes, short- lived. Your relationship with the media is an ongoing, long-term association, and your response to reporters during times of crisis can either strengthen or undermine that relationship.

While traditional and social media continue to evolve, certain proven crisis communications principles remain steadfast. By following the tried-and-true guidelines, your organization may not only survive during times of crisis, it may even thrive. (One Ward client’s business increased post-crisis out of the community’s appreciation for the client’s crisis response, which Ward managed… but don’t get your hopes up. Best to set your sights on maintaining the relationships you’ve invested to build over the years.)

The Crisis Communication Action Plan

Every organization, regardless of size or type of business, should have a comprehensive crisis communication action plan. This plan is a step-by-step guide on how to respond during a crisis and defines staff responsibilities within your organization. It identifies numerous potential crises that could occur in the organization; specifies the audiences that would be affected by those events; provides specific action steps, strategies and tactics for dealing with the individual crises; contains talking points tailored to specific events; outlines the chain of command for addressing the crisis; and designates the corporate spokesperson and back-up spokespersons.

The plan should be reviewed by risk management professionals and all messaging should be approved by legal counsel prior to being implemented. The plan should be assessed on a regular basis and revised, as needed, to reflect changes within the organization, operations, company personnel, etc.

Most organizations perform mock-crisis scenarios at least annually to ensure those involved are familiar with their roles and to identify any possible plan omissions or gaps. Likewise, spokespersons and back-up spokespersons should be trained and provided refresher training annually to ensure that they are prepared with up-to-date data and company perspectives, and ready to respond when needed.

Crisis Response

It is best, within legal limits, that you share what you know about a crisis situation with the public and media as soon as you responsibly can do so. Although you may not have all the specific details regarding the event, you can make prepared statements through the media and social media to inform the affected public about what you do know. Obviously, certain information, such as the identification of any injured party, cannot be made public until the family has been informed. However, you can speak to certain aspects of an event that you know to be true such as the time of the incident, location, general nature, etc. Do not avoid or delay communicating with the media/public until you have all the facts; doing so will only encourage those covering the event to speculate and you will lose the opportunity to control critical messaging.

By the same token, do not speculate yourself. You must be willing to use the broken record technique to tell hungry reporters the truth: “I do not know at this time. We will relay facts once they are confirmed.” You and your PR counsel should be working collaboratively with your legal counsel to determine what can be shared to preserve the company’s business in light of liability, defamation, employment and other relevant legal issues. While the public and media may want to know, it is not necessarily their right to know everything. You will have to weigh the potential consequences to many stakeholders to determine what is best to share, when.

Provide regular updates throughout the lifetime of the event. In some instances this may be only one day. Others, such as a coastal oil spill, may require continued communication for months and years.

Depending on the severity of the event, it may be necessary to set up a command post where all pertinent information is disseminated, with a separate but nearby location for media to camp out. If the reputational crisis is also an operational emergency where human safety and assets are at risk, you must have a well rehearsed command center operation to minimize the risks of such an event.

While the media may be screaming for information, do not forget the importance of internal communication during a crisis. Employees and their families should be kept up to date on the status of the incident as well.

Speaking During A Crisis

All messaging should be clear, concise and void of industry jargon. You want to communicate to as many people as possible so use language that is easily understood and avoid using highly technical terms. Additionally, your messaging should convey your sincere concern for the event and those affected by it.

While it may be tempting to say “no comment,” there are other ways not to reply to an unwanted question that are much less abrupt and much more palatable to the media and your audiences. Tell them what you do know with the confidence that is perfectly okay to answer, “Yes, there has been a fire. We are working to contain it. All personnel are safe and accounted for. We do not know the cause, nor will we until a thorough investigation concludes.”

You have the right to correct misinformation reported by the media. Depending on the nature of the information, it may be imperative that you do so. When crises occur, all involved go on “red alert.”
The first few hours of a crisis are fraught with opportunity to make mistakes and relay incorrect information. You should constantly monitor traditional and social media so that you can quickly correct misinformation as it is posted. Your role is to communicate the truth as you know it, correct any misinformation you or others may have relayed, and be readily available and accessible to the media.

Crises happen. They are unavoidable and part of everyday life. How you react /act during a crisis can have serious implications for your organization’s reputation. Organizations that invest the time preparing for potential crisis situations and practice their responses are the ones that tend to survive crises with their good name untarnished and their credibility undamaged. Further, the exercise of constant preparedness drives up corporate consciousness around the business’ areas of risk, which can be addressed before a damaging, unplanned event occurs.

Know it’s time to stop talking about getting prepared one day, and ready to provide the leadership you know is needed in your organization? Contact Ward to learn more about how to forward your Crisis Communication Planning and Response Preparedness.

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