Crisis Comms 101: a quick guide
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, it's clear that we all need to prepare for uncertain times and upheaval. By planning well and communicating clearly, businesses can do their bit to contribute to the management of an unprecedented situation. That being the case, here's a quick 101 on issues management and crisis communications to use as a starting point for planning...
Remember the 3 Cs
Want to reassure stakeholder groups? You need to display:
Use these three watchwords to sense-check all of your crisis communications.
Crisis management preparation
Start by conducting a risk audit to identify the various ways in which the crisis could affect your organisation, and group these into probable, possible and improbable. Include scenario planning and define and prioritise your audience. Decide on the procedures for crisis communication (who will manage it, who will act as spokesperson etc.) for consistency. Implement any training and test that your process works.
Having identified your core publics and any other specific audiences and ranked them in order of priority, you need to decide how you will reach them during a crisis. Create a quick touchpoint matrix and map out which channels will work best for which groups.
Build out procedures
You'll need to decide on roles and responsibilities and pull together a crisis management team. As well as agreeing on a nominated spokesperson, you'll need to think about setting up or adapting your media centre – keep it simple if you're a small organisation, the most important thing is to not find yourself on the back foot. Decide if you need any special equipment and remember that it's not just about creating a manual – it's as much about a state of mind and being ready to react.
The purpose of your crisis plan is to create a structure for appropriate issues management that sits separately from day-to-day PR activity and operations. It's important that trained personnel take the pressure, which will mean hands-on senior involvement and you may need to engage an external agency to advise and help take the strain. Define your response mechanisms, identify the most important contacts to help get your message out and have templates for holding statements, background information and resources at the ready.
Activating your plan
You've done the groundwork, let's say that an incident occurs that means you have to swing into action. If you attract media attention, bear in mind that it will go through three phases:
Mayhem – what's going on?
Mastermind – search for every detail
Manhunt – whose fault?
You need to be ready to respond to all three phases.
Preparing a holding statement
A holding statement needs to be concise and factual, setting out the situation as clearly as possible. It should confirm:
Who you are
What you know
What you're doing
When you will provide an update
Where to get further information
Liaison and coordination
Your aim must be to achieve consistency of message and thorough sharing of information while preventing buck-passing. If you have to respond to an issue, coordinate your activity conscientiously not only within your organisation but also within your sector, with partners and with other stakeholders.
While your immediate priority is to open up the lines of communication, bear in mind that, in any crisis, there may be legal implications longer term, if fault can be attributed. What is the balance between blame and responsibility? Has there been a clear case of negligence? Do insurance companies need to get involved, and will there be an inquiry? These are all questions that your senior team will need to be ready to deal with after the first wave of activity.
10 principles of crisis management
1. Be prepared
Spend time on scenario planning, procedures, plans, rehearsals etc. so you have a fail-safe system ready to deploy.
2. Provide background information
Give essential facts and figures, pre-prepared company info, biographies of spokespeople with pictures. You'll need to fill the information vacuum – remember that silence will be received with suspicion at best.
3. Manage the information flow
This shows that you know what's going on, helping consistency and clarity. Follow your plan, which may mean classifying different levels of incident and responding accordingly, allowing only one spokesperson and agreeing on coordination and timing.
4. Agree the ground rules
Set out the rules for communicating within the organisation, with other interested parties and with the media (will you give them access to the site, for example?).
5. Be authoritative
Regarding your issue or crisis, you should aim to be seen either as the only source of information, the only comprehensive source of information or the only credible source of information through the status, gravitas or expertise of your spokesperson.
6. Keep talking
Silence will be interpreted as secretiveness. Say what you can – but no more. Keep it directed and relevant, offer more information later and give information about something else if you find that's the only way to fill the vacuum.
7. Say you're sorry
This point will be open to debate within your organisation, and particularly with your lawyers and insurers. However, expressing regret doesn't imply responsibility and may pre-empt unnecessary criticism.
8. Be accurate
Make sure you're truthful for practical and ethical reasons. Providing incorrect info will be interpreted as incompetence, which will position your organisation as untrustworthy. Stick to the facts and don't speculate. Check and doublecheck all details before releasing them, then monitor coverage and correct mistakes if others misinterpret the facts.
9. Be sensitive
Understand your audiences and adopt the right tone, style and language to connect with them. For external audiences, check the content of the material to be issued, ensure that media spokespeople are media-trained in advance and watch out for inappropriate behaviour. Keep internal audiences well informed and watch for stress and indications that employees aren't coping. Don't ignore any unsung heroes.
10. Learn the lessons
Keep records, press cuttings and details of new contacts. In the aftermath, you'll need to revise your crisis planning based on the experience and share the learnings with others. Recognise the impact the crisis has had – provide debriefs and counselling and acknowledge the effect on clients as well as employees (not forgetting yourself) as you prepare to move forward.
Ready to get organised? You can download HubSpot's free crisis comms plan template here.