Communicating During a Crisis – Don’t Make a Bad Thing Worse

What you say and how you say it during a crisis might be the single greatest determinant in whether your crisis will continue to escalate or will stabilize.  You will find that almost all the information you receive in the first twenty-four hours, and use to make decisions, will be found to have been wrong.  Making decisions during a crisis is challenging.  Making decisions with bad intelligence, during a crisis, is like making a choice between two bad things.  You may not be able to control the decisions you’ll be forced to make, but you can control how you communicate.  Control and execution of your well-thought out communication process will steer your crisis toward stabilization rather then continued escalation.  The latter condition will cause all your subsequent crises. 

There are three reasons and/or purposes to communicate early during a crisis.  If what you’re considering communicating doesn’t fit into one of these three buckets, you might consider, not communicating instead.  There will be a time and place for doing so.  It just doesn’t need to be done early in a crisis.

  1. Coordination – this communication is critical to direct internal coordination activities regarding response and recovery.
  2. Crisis – this communication is necessary to address potential crisis impacts on brand and reputation.
  3. Compliance – if you have regulatory requirements for notifications, this communication will meet those regulatory requirements.

 

You should design a mechanism to communicate directly to all your stakeholder groups.  Your stakeholders are customers, employees, vendors, regulators, board members, etc.  If you can communicate directly to all your stakeholder groups, you do not need the media to do so.  To bypass the media will provide you with an extraordinary advantage.  During a quiet, pre-crisis time, you should think about and write down how you’ll communicate directly to all your stakeholder groups. This will give you a significant advantage during a crisis when you’ll have more important things to do than planning for this step.

Now that you know how you’ll communicate to each stakeholder group, the next step is creating message maps.  A pre-written message will give you the advantage of speed and accuracy when you need it most.  It is always easier to edit a message then craft it from the start during a time of crisis.  A message map is a crisp, concise message to be delivered.  It is not a script, but a core message.  It will provide you a safe place to go when the microphone is shoved in your face.  It will give you time to think and avoid “heat of the moment” communication mistakes.

Firestorm has made our clients successful with three simple messages.  These should be practiced and rehearsed before you need them.

  1. “We will not be defined by this event”.  What does define your company?  What do you stand for?  What is your mission?
  2. “We will invent the future”.  What will you do to make sure this doesn’t happen again or to fix the issue?
  3. “We will embrace the families”.  What will you do to support the victims or those impacted by the crisis?

These three simple messages provide a positive image and will help move your crisis toward stabilization rather than continued escalation.

It is almost always best, and safest, not to talk to the media.  If you can reach your stakeholder groups directly, you don’t need the media to do so.  When and if the media show up at your office seeking a comment on something, I suggest a dialogue like this.  “I’m sorry, tell me your name”.  Calling the reporter by his/her name puts you in more control of the situation.  “I’m sure you can understand this is a difficult time for us.  I’m not the authorized spokesman for the company.  If you’ll give me your name and contact information I’ll pass your information along to the authorized spokesman”.  If you are required to have a dialogue, remember that you are in control if you tell them what you want them to hear.  You speak of facts only, no opinions.  You stick to your home base message maps above.  Be careful answering questions “off the cuff”.  If you’re explaining, you will be viewed as losing. 

Three simple rules for communicating during a crisis:

  1. Communicate directly to your stakeholder groups and don’t try to communicate through the media.
  2. Ask “why” are you about to communicate? If you can’t come up with a good answer after asking “why” several times, perhaps you ought not talk.
  3. If you must talk, prepare three pre-written and rehearsed messages that will reflect positively on your company. 

 

For more information on this topic or any other business continuity preparedness questions, I can be reached at 410-303-0635 or kmercer@firestorm.com.  www.firestorm.com.  Please join me in two weeks for my last article, Preparedness at Home.  You are more likely to be able to count on the employee who is prepared at home for helping you in your business crisis.  The employee’s needs at home, with their family, will always supersede your need for them at work.  Knowing that they are prepared for a crisis at home will benefit you at work. 

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