Crisis communication dos and don’ts

Your brand is confronted with a public challenge to its reputation.

Picture it—journalists are banging down your door, the social conversation is getting out of hand, and the negative coverage is pouring in.

You probably weren’t the one whose actions triggered the public outcry, but that doesn’t matter now.

As a communication professional, this could be a make-or-break moment in your career. The stakes are high—both for you, and for the business you represent.

Clearly, you have your work cut out for you.

More than anything, it’s the way you respond that determines the lasting impact of a crisis event.  And the way you’ve prepared yourself and your team for such a moment determines your ability to respond appropriately.

Honing your crisis communication skills is like learning self-defense—you hope you never need to use it, but if the day comes when you do, you’ll be grateful for the time you invested in your training.

So, what can you do now in order to prepare for a crisis?

There are certainly some good action steps you can take: scenario planning, setting up media training for your executives, having a crisis team and internal communication networks in place, cultivating surrogates who can speak on your behalf, and so much more.

All good ideas, but there’s something even more important that sits above all that. The most important thing you can do is to cultivate a mindset for crisis communication.

This means a few things—in particular, you must internalize the key principles that can guide your brand back to safer shores. It is also useful to understand some real-life examples that show how different response types will be received. Familiarizing yourself with some proven crisis-handling strategies now is much better than the alternative—learning the hard way.

Examples to live (or die) by

The company enlisted crisis expert and DePaul University PR professional in residence Ron Culp to analyze the crisis handling—not the events themselves, but the brand reactions—of United Airlines’ infamous forced removal of a paid passenger; Facebook’s data scandal involving Cambridge Analytica; KFC’s revered apology for its recent UK chicken shortage; and Starbucks’ racial-profiling scandal in a Philadelphia franchise.

Four different crises, four different responses, four different outcomes—these brief case studies cover the best and worst crisis management in recent times. Learn what to do—and what you absolutely should not do—by taking a look at Culp’s analysis.

Adopting the Page principles

If you’re in doubt about how to elicit some of those good outcomes (and avoid the horrendous ones), a terrific template for PR behavior can be found in the Page Principles. The Arthur W. Page Society—a bastion of PR education and enrichment—provides as part of its mission 7 principles of PR management intended to guide the actions and behavior of practitioners, which are especially applicable to crisis management. These principles, with the Society’s own guidelines in italicized quotes below, are as emblematic of the truest character of PR in today’s digital world of fake news and information overload as they were during Page’s own lifetime.

1. Tell the truth

“Let the public know what’s happening and provide an accurate picture of the company’s character, ideals and practices.”

If it looks like a crisis is developing, today’s companies must be absolutely open and honest about what’s happening, and refrain at all costs from doing anything that might make consumers second-guess their intentions. Once you’ve gone down the wormhole of deception, rebuilding trust can be tremendously challenging, if not impossible.

2. Prove it with action

“Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.”

It’s easy to hide behind marketing lingo and canned messages, but the true essence of a brand or business’ moral fabric is in the actions it takes and reactions it makes—and more than ever before, today’s consumers won’t be fooled by a company’s contradictory lip service. When crisis strikes, the substantive things you do in response will be what consumers and stakeholders remember—not the excuses you make.

3. Listen to stakeholders

“To serve the enterprise well, understand what the public wants and needs and advocate for engagement with all stakeholders. Keep top decision makers and other employees informed about stakeholder reaction to the enterprise’s products, policies and practices. To listen effectively, engage a diverse range of stakeholders through inclusive dialogue.”

You need to understand what all of your audiences want and need, and this includes your company’s customers and prospects, but also your employees, investors and, to an extent, the media—and if any of these groups are upset, you must listen closely and act thoughtfully to avoid a tone-deaf response.

4. Manage for tomorrow

“Anticipate public reaction and eliminate practices that create difficulties. Generate goodwill.” 

When handling crisis, you must think beyond just putting the train back on the tracks; you must also prepare your organization for operating at a higher level in the future. Your audiences want to see that you have learned the right lesson—and you must be prepared to prove that you have. The sun will rise again—but for a crisis-riddled company, the nights get longer and darker.

5. Conduct public relations as if the whole enterprise depends on it

“No strategy should be implemented without considering its impact on stakeholders. As a management and policymaking function, public relations should encourage the enterprise’s decision making, policies and actions to consider its stakeholders’ diverse range of views, values, experience, expectations and aspirations.”

This is particularly true during a crisis, because it’s very likely that the whole enterprise actually does depend on how your PR handles matters. While it’s best to act quickly and get on top of the situation before your critics take control of the messaging, every move must be orchestrated by the crisis response team, with all scenarios of reaction explored. This is when PR must grab the wheel and right the ship.

6. Realize an enterprise’s true character is expressed by its people

“The strongest opinions—good or bad—about an enterprise are shaped by the words and deeds of an increasingly diverse workforce. As a result, every employee—active or retired—is involved with public relations. It is the responsibility of corporate communications to advocate for respect, diversity and inclusion in the workforce and to support each employee’s capability and desire to be an honest, knowledgeable ambassador to customers, friends, shareowners and public officials.”

Every manager, employee, board member, investor and spokesperson—active or retired—is a representative of your company’s reputation. Support each employee’s capability and desire to be an honest and knowledgeable ambassador, and make sure each has the tools and training to act on behalf of your brand if necessary—because a crisis may create that necessity on the spot, and whatever is said cannot be unsaid.

7. Remain calm, patient, and good-humored

“Lay the groundwork for public relations successes with consistent and reasoned attention to information and stakeholders. When a crisis arises, remember, cool heads communicate best.”

Especially in today’s instant-fire social media age, getting anxious, defensive, or going on the attack is only likely to make things spiral further out of control. Use a “take a deep breath” mentality at all times, and cross-check any planned response with the crisis team. Now is the time to prove that your company has character. Even if it doesn’t quell the backlash right away, it will go a long way towards re-establishing your professional image in the long run. Remember that this too shall pass—so don’t make the clean-up unnecessarily harder.

Position your brand to weather any storm

There’s a Japanese proverb that says, “The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.”

Rarely is this truer than in how a company responds to a public gaffe, whether real or alleged. We never hope for such a moment, but if we are prepared with the right knowledge and mindset, our response can define our brand for years to come.

For more information on crisis communications management, check out Agility’s SlideShare, to help crisis managers and others with PR responsibilities learn from some of the most notable crisis responses over the last year.

Marcus Kaulback

Marcus Kaulback is a content marketer with Agility PR Solutions. When he’s not creating the stuff, he’s unearthing it, curating it, and tailoring it, in order to bring the utmost value to his audience (while also bringing a little bit to the company). He has a sister who is also in marketing. What a world!

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