Communicating in a Crisis

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Are You Ready?

The crisis you never expected suddenly strikes. Five hungry reporters are outside your door, demanding answers. Another dozen have phoned in the past 15 minutes wanting to know what happened and why? How will your organization react, and who will do what?

That, in a nutshell, is the problem facing many companies and organizations every day. You need only scan daily news reports to realize that your crisis could be just around the corner.

During my years in reputation management counseling, and as a journalist, I discovered that few organizations have a formal crisis communications plan. That can be very dangerous. In most cases, the perception of your company or organization is established in the first few hours after a crisis. Usually the news media are the ones who set that perception. Do you know exactly how your organization and its executives will react once a crisis occurs?

Here is what I have discovered in working with management teams that have just experienced an unforeseen crisis or who know a crisis is about to occur:

  • Top management invariably say it is the public relations persons’ problem.
  • Worse yet, the organization may have no P.R. person or staff to rely on or blame.
  • The company may have a “crisis plan” but it turns out to be two pages with phone numbers of people to be notified.
  • Management decides that it is “an internal problem” and endorses the stonewalling philosophy.
  • The official policy is “no comment.”

All of these positions are weak and will leave you vulnerable. Every company or organization should have a detailed crisis communications plan that will explain in orderly fashion just what is expected of the executive staff. This plan gives exact detail on what each management person is to do in the first hour, the first day, the first week following the crisis situation, and finally, what the follow-up will be. Because it is a step-by-step process, a good communications plan is normally about an inch thick and will delve into what may seem like the most trivial of details. there is no question that the greatest weakness in crisis management planning is the failure to decide beforehand what you will do and who will do it once the crisis occurs.

My crisis communications plans concentrate on the news media because I believe in a very simple philosophy: Perception is truth and the media creates the perception following a crisis. For those who would even think of implementing a “no comment” philosophy with the media, I offer this fact: The trade journal, P.R. News, cites a survey that says 65% of the public takes “no comment” as an admission of guilt. The most important communications strategy in a crisis, particularly in the first few hours, is to be open with the public by being available to the news media..

The need for every company or organization to have a thorough crisis communications plan is summed up nicely in my favorite saying from an unknown source: “By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark!”

Anthony Huey is President of Reputation Management Associates, a crisis communications agency in Columbus, Ohio, specializing in media and crisis training.