Did you know that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters: one representing threat and the other representing opportunity? This is worth remembering because every crisis, no matter how serious, allows a business to enhance its reputation. A crisis usually means you are the subject of more attention than usual. Different types of media might be covering the story than those that normally feature you, and the news may well reach a bigger audience. If the crisis is serious enough, you could even find yourself at the center of a global media frenzy. While that might sound horrendous, it also presents a tremendous opportunity to drive home your key messages and tell people what your business is about. The reason this works is because the public is very forgiving of a business in crisis, especially if the crisis is not of that organization's making. They won't forgive you if you communicate badly because that's the part that is definitely in your control but if you handle your communication well, you will be more highly regarded than you were before. So, what does good crisis communication look like?
1. Communicate quickly
Best practice says you must communicate within 15 minutes of being alerted to a crisis. That is a lot to ask, but it is possible if you are well prepared. The advent of social media means the news could still reach Facebook or Twitter before you get your statement out, but by acting quickly, you will be able to establish your version of events before an alternative takes hold.
2. Any information you issue must be accurate
You must never speculate and only give out facts you are 100% sure are correct. In the first 15 minutes of a crisis, you may not be able to say very much, but saying something makes a huge difference. It shows you aren't hiding, which makes it seem less likely that you have something to hide, it shows you understand and respect the need to keep your stakeholders informed, and it establishes you as the main point of contact.
3. Be consistent
Every stakeholder, from employees to clients, needs to get the same information. Once you have issued your first communication, you must tell the media when they can expect an update. Then you have to stick to it. Even if you have nothing new to say, tell them that. Reporters have a job to do; they have to tell the story. They will tell the story with or without your input. Be involved in the process and make sure your version of events comes across strongly. In order to get your crisis communication right, you need to prepare in advance. You can't wait until a crisis hits before you decide how to handle the communications. You need to choose, brief and train spokespeople in advance, identify potential scenarios and prepare holding statements. Would you know how to set up a helpline number for people to call if a major incident affecting your employees or customers occurred? If you don't want your switchboard jammed by people calling for information, this is something you need to have ready to activate. Compile a list of contact numbers and think in advance who would need to be kept informed. This list will be different depending on the type of crisis, and should be compiled when you can devote time and attention to it to make sure no key stakeholders are missed. The word crisis sounds scary, but making the most of the opportunity to enhance your reputation is relatively simple. Remember these simple tips:
- Be prepared.
- Communicate quickly but accurately.
- Establish yourself as the source of information.
- Be open, honest and available.
- Be consistent.
- Remember that the story will be told with or without you.
Heather Astbury is a former journalist and holder of the CIPR diploma in PR. In her 20-plus-year international career in PR and media, she has developed crisis communication plans for Emirates, flydubai, Shop Direct and others. She has dealt with bomb threats, hijackings and potential terrorist threats across the globe. Heather started The Reputation People in June 2018 to bring world-class PR and Reputation Management solutions to a wider audience via more transparent and flexible pricing options.