3 factors for effective crisis communications
Living in a hyper-connected world, we have immediate access to news and information. Whether on a news network or Twitter, we see journalists or bystanders with a smartphone capturing images and video of the good and bad happening in our world – from soldiers returning home to anxious families after a long deployment or students stepping in to stop bullying to a quickly spreading virus, like COVID-19, or devastating storms. We can witness a crisis unfold and then follow news coverage for days, weeks and even months.
You do not need to be a communications expert to know when a situation was handled well or when it was handled so badly that you’d never pay a penny for that product or service again. It’s pretty easy to recognize when the spokesperson for a company, a politician or celebrity addressed a situation well. On the flip side, it’s also easy to pinpoint the exact moment when the spokesperson’s reaction to a situation took a turn for the worse.
Many college students have spent time scrutinizing case studies detailing corporate crises. One tragic incident that’s been heralded as one of the most well-managed crises is Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in the early 1980s. The response was quick, and it was clear that customer safety was the number one priority. Other companies and organizations have not fared so well in dealing with a crisis. Some that come to mind are BP’s oil spill following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, a passenger being dragged off of an overbooked United Airlines flight, Wells Fargo executives creating 2 million fake banking and credit card accounts, and Volkswagen cheating on emission tests. Sadly, the list goes on and on.
We never know when a crisis could hit, so preparation is key. Here are some tips to navigate a situation, big or small. Speed, proactivity and transparency are three critical factors in an organization’s response to a crisis.
There’s no such thing as being too prepared to handle a crisis. An absolute must is to have a crisis communication plan that details the key players on the response team; where the response team will operate; how the response team will receive information and updates; and when and how you’ll communicate to employees, residents/patients, families and the media; and so on. Your plan should also include key messages about your organization that can be incorporated into media statements and other external communication.
Another important step is to map out some likely scenarios your organization could face and practice how you’d respond. A few scenarios could be a spread of a contagious illness that impacts a significant portion of your resident/patient population and/or your staff, fire or an active shooter.
Clear communication to your key audiences, including the media, is critical throughout a crisis. Provide communications and media training to senior leaders and other operational leaders who may be involved in the response. If the COVID-19 pandemic caught you unprepared for crisis communications, use it as a lesson and still implement the next two factors in your communication plans going forward.
In a crisis, every second counts. Assemble your response team and begin gathering as much intel as possible. As information is received, start putting together the who, what, when, where and why. With this information, your communications leader will begin drafting key messages to guide your initial communication to your key audiences – staff, residents/patients and families – as well as a statement for the media. Notice I said “initial” communication? During a crisis, it’s imperative you communicate with frequency.
In your initial communication, share what you know at that point. Try not to speculate as it could lead to misinformation getting out. It’s ok to say you don’t know something but work to find the answer as soon as possible. In follow up communications, briefly remind people what you’ve already shared and provide new details and instructions, if necessary.
Make sure your staff who answer phones or who are in direct contact with residents/patients and families are prepared to answer questions and know where to direct people for more information.
If the crisis is a result of a mistake on your part or a staff member’s part, acknowledge the mistake and offer a sincere apology. As quickly as possible, share your plan of attack to ensure the incident doesn’t happen again.
In any communication, written or verbal, be honest and convey genuine concern for all parties involved in or affected by the situation. Your words and actions need to reflect your mission and values. Monitor reaction to the situation and your organization’s response by listening to what people are saying and following activity on social media. This will provide valuable input on how your messages are being received and what additional information or context you need to provide in subsequent communications to your audiences.
You don’t want to come across tone deaf as Tony Hayward, BP CEO, did during the height of the oil spill when he infamously exclaimed, “I want my life back.” Or as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz did following a passenger being forcibly ejected from a plane when he tweeted his apology, “for having to re-accommodate these customers.” He later wrote a note to United Airlines’ staff saying, “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.”
In a crisis, your organization is on a stage with a bright light shining on it. Your actions will be analyzed from every angle. Let your mission and values guide your response. Communicate early and often with your key audiences. When managed well, a crisis can demonstrate how the leaders of your organization rise to the challenge to carry the organization through a difficult time. If we can assist you during the COVID-19 response or at any time to ensure you’re prepared for a crisis, reach out.