Crisis management is an umbrella term for an extensive portfolio of public relations professions. Among the sub-specialities of crisis management is crisis communication. Without it, you are unable to deploy your plan and maintain the trust of your employees. An internal communication plan must stress personal connection if your employees are to remain loyal to your brand and help you whether the storm. With our expertise in strategic communication and helping companies build personal connections to help businesses reach their bottom line and retain employees, here’s our guide for communicating during a crisis.
What is crisis communication?
Crisis communication is the process of defending the reputation of a person, company or organization that is under attack or public scrutiny for their actions. This involves internal messaging to build a strategy and mitigating internal damage, and external messaging to maintain public image. It involves quick, concise and proactive communication to respond to the allegations and build a better narrative. Remember, first things come first. Internal communication is the first step to a crisis communication plan. Once all of your employees are on the same page, you can more effectively craft messages with uniform tone for the public to read, watch, or listen to.
It’s crucial to note that it’s inadvisable to spin a story when you’re at fault, although some unscrupulous entities take that route. Proper crisis communication is built from integrity and honesty, including apologies when needed and explanations with facts where they need to defend themselves.
Crisis communication is a key factor for Fortune 500 companies like ExxonMobil, which until today remains one of the largest publicly-traded companies in the U.S. – despite accusations against the company influencing the United State’s foreign policy, neglecting human rights issues raised against them, and fighting proven data about climate change and global warming. Through crisis management, Exxon managed to recover, adjust and continue to do business. While they’re still a prominent and influential company, their production has steadily been in decline. Their declining profit margins are in part due to poor crisis management. They were unable to effectively regain the trust of the public.
Some employees have even sued ExxonMobile because of unsafe working conditions. Companies must prove they have learned from crises, especially if they have a direct effect on the safety of employees. A crisis communication plan must communicate to its employees that they are taking steps to mitigate crisis, and maintain a personal connection to let employees know their voices matter.
Crisis communication focuses on these three areas.
- Issues management
- Risk communication
- Reputation management
Issues can create a crisis, which is why it is essential to have a grasp on issue management. When a problem is managed, it means the stakeholders in the crisis known what actions are being taken. The crisis management team immerses in rectifying the situation and every action taken by the affected party is scrutinized for potential problems. Essentially, stakeholders define and control the issue through targeted communication.
Even when stakeholders are at the executive or management level, it is important to take stock of potentially less obvious effects on other employees. Make sure that you keep everyone in the loop as much as possible without creating panic or exposing confidential information.
This area concerns how messages from the party in crisis are communicated to others. There should be an understanding of how the public or other affected stakeholders apportion responsibility for the problem to craft an appropriate risk communication strategy. Remember that external communication stems from internal communication, and reinforcing a strong personal connection between employees can help make sure everyone maintains consistent, honest messaging.
This is where the crisis communication team begins to restore the reputation of the affected entity. It should be subtle and compassionate where it needs to be. The example of ExxonMobil is a notable example because, despite the fact that their oil spill of 1989 in Alaska caused so much environmental damage, they didn’t take much responsibility and instead continued lobbying for denial of data about global warming and climate change.
Three decades later, they remain one of the most unpopular companies on the planet. This is not because of the oil spill, but because of their response to environmental issues thereafter. Their communication strategy did not leave room for accepting blame, and instead avoided the issue while failing to do ample damage control. As we can see from the employees who sued ExxonMobil, accepting the blame is not just a PR strategy, but a way to prevent future crises.
What could go wrong?
When a company is doing well, the thought of a crisis is often the last thing on the CEO’s mind. It’s hard to picture what could go wrong when a business is burgeoning. But those are the very instances that an organization is caught flat-footed by an unforeseen crisis. Failing to have a crisis communication team and plan in place can be fatal for a business in this situation.
The necessary steps to implementing crisis communication are not complicated. However, a crucial factor towards effective crisis management hinges on being prepared even before a crisis ever hits. That means a company needs to implement efficient channels of communication and standard protocols long before a crisis occurs.
Because no one can predict a crisis and what form it may take, preparation cannot be overstated here. Depending on the type of company and services the organization offers, a team tasked with crisis communication should be trained to handle any issue deemed as a crisis. Such a unit is trained in credible response mechanisms in the event of any unpleasant circumstances that requires mitigation between the public or individuals and the company. But even if you hire a unit for crisis communication, make sure to communicate their strategies to the whole team.
There is no shortage of the number of issues in an organization that may require crisis communication. This can range from harassment allegations within the company from employees to any controversial company policies. Such issues can get very ugly very quickly if a business does not act quickly. Eventually, these situations cost a company untold individual losses should the public get wind of the allegations.
Steps in a crisis
There are three elements present in all crises
- A threatening situation to the company, organization or individual
- Internal or external damage, shock, and threatened reputation
- Limited time to make a defining decision
The rule of thumb for any organization or influential individual is to never underestimate a thorny issue. It is prudent to have an in-house crisis management team that has a separate crisis communication arm. Their job is to monitor even the most mundane complaints and claims and develop strategies to deal with them before it’s too late to salvage a brand’s reputation.
A CEO should consider the repercussions of not being prepared before a crisis, and act promptly by choosing whether or not to outsource crisis management or create a team in-house.
How to implement a crisis communication strategy
There are three fundamental steps to approach any crisis
- Pre-crisis preparation
- Mid-crisis implementation
- Post-crisis strategy
Foresee a crisis
All businesses will have a crisis at one time or another. Those that emerge on the other side are those that have prepared with ample planning and communication. Anticipating a crisis will help you develop a team and strategies to deal with any fallout. It may also help the company identify loopholes that can expose the organization to potential crises.
Choose a crisis communication team
A crisis communication team should comprise of high-level executives with an in-depth understanding of the running of the organization. This is because they’re equipped with the necessary information to handle inquisition from the public and stakeholders. The CEO is definitely part of the team, as are the legal and PR teams. Departmental heads may be included depending on the scope of the crisis.
The crisis management team should do a vulnerability audit, which is a risk assessment to determine the weak areas in the organization that opens it up to a crisis. At the end of the vulnerability audit, the crisis communication team should develop a crisis communication plan that will guide the organization’s reaction to any crises that pop up.
From the team, there should be a designated crisis spokesperson. The spokesperson must be equipped to handle themselves when under fire and be eloquent in all forms of media from public meetings to on-camera. Always remember, crisis communication is very different from proactive PR. In the former one is under fire and in the latter, they’re in friendly environments. The spokesperson needs the training to be able to get the message across in a manner that addresses the concerns of all involved.
Develop notification and alerting mechanisms
It is vital to have a way to notify or alert stakeholders about a crisis immediately after it’s detected. The notification can be as simple as a text message or a code that all the members for the crisis management team are aware of. Keeping everyone in the loop can prevent future damage. It is important to make sure that everyone in your company is on the same page and knows these procedures for crisis. Your internal communication plan should have a way to ensure that everyone has the necessary phone apps or technological means to stay up-to-date.
Seek to understand the situation
Social media is a great place to monitor the conversation and feelings surrounding the crisis, allowing the crisis communication team can stay on the pulse. However, no one except the spokesperson should respond via the appropriate social media channels and with approved messages.
Apologies to employees, clients, and the media must be heartfelt and genuine – however, explanations should rarely occur via social media. In most cases, crises are surprise occurrences, and the situation may still be unfolding, so information is scant. When asked about the crisis at this point, honestly point out that the situation is still evolving and the organization is keeping an eye on it. Once they have all the facts, they will release a statement or address the matter.
This statement should be promptly, but not too soon that it’s hasty. It might be a good idea to create a template ahead of time for general crises and appoint specific employees to be in charge of writing and deploying the message. It’s important that not only executives understand the situation, but all employees. Improve personal connections with employees to motivate them to stay in the loop.
Once the problem has been identified, acknowledge the organization’s role in it and outline what is being done to rectify the situation. “No comment” is a very unsatisfactory answer that tends to fuel more outrage about the situation. A real apology keeps the conversation moving forward.
Listen to the team
This is not the time to be second-guessing each other. Remember, the organization has a guide about how to respond to the crisis, and it should take effect immediately. Instilling trust and loyalty among employees long before a crisis occurs is crucial. If employees like where they work, they’ll be more willing to stay active during the crisis management process.
The spokesperson only communicates publicly messaging that has been agreed upon, and that has gone through all the legal and PR teams checks and balances. These two teams will have crafted the best language for the spokesperson to use during this time.
After acknowledging the role of the organization in the situation, outline actionable steps that are being implemented. The actions must be substantial enough to make a discernible difference in the situation. For example, in cases of fraud, restitution of the stolen funds is crucial to restoring public confidence in the company or organization.
Acting fast is essential at this point in the crisis because what is done can quickly restore faith or make people lose faith in an organization or brand. For example, despite the unlikable reputation ExxonMobil has for lobbying for denial of climate change and global warming data, when the company had an oil spill in 2013 in an Arkansas suburb, they were quick to take responsibility, clean up the mess and pay up $5.07 million for the spillage. They talked less and did more, and with the help of PR images from their crisis communication team, the story faded faster.
Review the crisis
Once the crisis is contained, the crisis management team needs to review the entire process from the notification and alerting system to the response guide, messaging and imparting of approved information and the monitoring of all the media channels. Identify the areas that need improvement and fine-tune those areas. Make sure internal communication persists and everyone understands the external message to be deployed.
Bring in communication specialists
At this point, it’s a good idea to bring in a third party subject specialist to work with the team on bettering the crisis response mechanisms. A communications specialist helps the organization work on internal strategies for a better response internally and externally to crises.
They will work in conjunction with the crisis communication team at first to set up the proper communication strategies that will work even better than before.
When to outsource for crisis communication
Sometimes an organization doesn’t have the kind of human resources that can make up a resourceful, formidable crisis communications team. That is when there is a need to outsource these services. Such agencies inject:
CEOs, the legal team and other executives have vested interests in the company and their individual reputation, which may cause them to lose perspective in times of a crisis. Crisis communication specialists provide an impartial voice and utilize the best practices in the situation in the best overall interest of the organization.
Third-party crisis communicators have the experience of doing similar damage control with other clients, so they offer their expertise without bias or favour. By being unbiased, they can make sure internal communication covers everyone. While it might seem contradictory, external parties can actually maximize personal connection.
In-house communication teams write with a bias towards either their department or their future aspirations in the company, which is why an outside team can help. Plus, a CEO may have excellent organizational skills when it comes to running the company, but they may not be the best communicator. In crisis management, the messages need to be shorter and more concise with more action to back up the words. These specialists understand that the more words are used in the messaging, the more there is to pick apart and misconstrue. They’ll keep the approved messaging short and precisely to the point so that there is no miscommunication.
A crisis shouldn’t mean the end of the organization, but it certainly can be if it is handled the wrong way. Having a crisis communication team is not just a good idea, nor even a great idea – it’s absolutely vital for a company to prepare for the worst.
That’s why at VP Legacies, we work with you to build an effective communication strategy during times of crisis. With our focus on personal connection and building trust, you’ll enlist all of your employees to play their role during crisis mitigation and find your way through with success.