Crisis response

19 July 2018

Communication is key in crisis management. Companies should rehearse response plans regularly.

When an organization is in the grip of a crisis, good communication is essential.

In the age of social media, information (accurate or otherwise) can spread around the world in minutes, causing potentially irreparable damage to brands, reputations, revenues, profits and share prices.

Controlling the flow of information as events unfold is therefore crucial in order to avert a damaging PR disaster.

Any event that could have a negative effect on an organization’s image, from a major data breach to a scandal, accident or environmental catastrophe, needs a coordinated communication strategy run by a well-drilled crisis management team.

Crisis management is a senior leadership activity. Senior leaders must orchestrate a collaborative effort from individuals from various departments within the organization as well as third-party specialists.

Those responsible for managing crises should have proven capabilities, and this is often built through experience and rehearsing their roles. When a crisis strikes, senior leaders must know who the key stakeholders are, how to communicate with them and when.

The use of pre-prepared statements with agreed content (subject to edit according to the event) for the different stakeholders saves time and minimizes the chance of errors.

Companies with major potential public liabilities (a chemical factory in a built-up area, for example) should rehearse their response plans at least quarterly. Being too busy is no excuse. These plans must be taken seriously.

Crisis management done correctly

Crisis management plans must be flexible in order to respond to a wide range of significant scenarios that should be identified during the planning process.

A core component will be a pre-set agenda that lays out a path of key actions to be taken. The welfare of victims and their families is always the first concern, and it is important to put them first in all communications, as well as thanking and praising emergency services if appropriate.

Ideally, the affected organization should be the primary source of information as events unfold. Directing the public to the company website carrying real-time updates is one way of doing this.

In some settings, crisis response may involve a community effort (including emergency services or local authorities, for instance), in which case it should be pre-agreed who deals with different types of communication.

Often, crisis management is run from a command centre, including live TV and social media feeds to allow the team to react quickly to what is being reported.

Nowadays, it also pays to have a dedicated social media resource not only to provide regular updates but also to monitor social media platforms for reports or rumours that demand an immediate direct response.

However, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can make a crisis worse and, if the organization does not know certain information, it is always best to be honest and say the investigation is ongoing. It is also worth noting that the CEO is not always the right spokesperson.

Engage technical experts

If there have been multiple deaths or casualties, communication is best left to experienced professionals.

Technical experts should be brought in to establish the cause of the incident and what needs to be done.

This information must be delivered in language that the public can easily understand, so it is usually best for a spokesperson to be guided by a professional PR team before they face the cameras.

Even if an organization is not liable for its crisis, such as following a terrorist attack or natural disaster, it still has to face the media and provide updates and support for those affected.

Mishandling information during this time can have dire consequences, and every senior leader must know and have practiced their role.

For more information on crisis response planning and management and to speak with our team of specialists, please contact ClientFirst@jltcanada.com.