There are two fundamental things to remember when confronting a crisis. First, in a 24/7 world of news and social media, it’s your job to report the news first. This is your best opportunity to shape the story and ensure the most salient information is disseminated. Second, your most important audiences are the ones closest to you—your clients, attorneys and staff; news organizations are important secondary audiences. Your responsibility is to assuage fears and keep people calm. Your tier-one “stakeholders” want to hear from you.
Designate a response team
Once you designate a response team, the members will want to:
- Create a crisis page on your intranet. Immediately build a crisis page that includes need-to-know information about the situation. Alert your employees about it. The page could have security controls so there are different levels of content and permissions that you will manage. For example, spokespersons have access to everything. Partners have access to other things and staff have access to yet another layer of information. Establish a communications protocol where all personnel will forward any inquiries related to a crisis to your public relations people or management.
- Create a media list. Have a list ready of the five reporters and editors who write about your company on a consistent basis and who you would likely call in a crisis. Include their full contact information. Update this as often as needed.
- Decide on your social-media usage. List the logins/passwords for your social-media accounts, and ensure your core team has access to them.
- Get numbers. Set a call-in number and/or designate a meeting place for the team if a crisis occurs. Determine the best means to communicate and create a check-in schedule.
If a crisis happens:
- Quickly triage the situation and anticipate what will happen next. Determine the interest level by the types of audiences impacted (internal and external).
- Unearth what is already in the public domain and assess the emotional tenor on a 5-point scale, with ”no concern” being 1 and “seriously emotional” being a 5.
- Isolate the most critical issues, including any interrelated business, reputation and legal elements that impact one other, as well as any ancillary issues that might stand alone. The core questions are: Did you know? What did you know? When did you know it?”
- Update your messages. Your position and key messages must be air-tight based on the facts you have at the time. Be prepared with a brief statement that includes a short summary of the problem and how you are responding to it, emphasizing empathy when appropriate.
- Determine how you want to involve the media to your advantage. Existing relationships with media are critical to success. Depending on the history and duration of your relationship, an off-the-record conversation might be valuable, but handle with care, as always.
- Keep a media call log, both incoming and outgoing.
- Refine your holding statement, polish your message points, prepare a potential Q-and-A and train your spokesperson(s).
- Reporters will likely call before all the facts have been gathered. In such an instance, a simple statement acknowledging the situation shall be given. The short statement avoids "no comment" or similar brush-offs and acknowledges the company recognizes the need to cooperate with the media and inform the public. This holding statement can be posted on the website, blogs and given to the press. Holding statements answers the four "Ws”: Who, What, Where and When. Explain WHAT the incident is. Identify WHO is involved in the incident as well as the resources and equipment involved. Tell WHERE and WHEN the incident occurred. Explain WHAT action your company is taking to mitigate or respond to the incident. Do not explain WHY the event occurred unless complete information is available and has been approved. Attempting to explain the WHY without complete information is irresponsible speculation and can seriously undermine communication efforts.
A word of caution
- Bad news shared with more then one person will most likely be leaked to outsiders and news organizations. In most cases, the greatest source of leaks and surprise releases of information are internal. Establish protocols that address this.
- Be careful about what you share in writing with people other than with your stakeholder group. Memos, emails and texts are often forwarded to reporters and shared with others.
- You can expect calls from the media for comment. Respond immediately or at least within an hour with a verbal or written statement.
Elizabeth Lampert is the president of Elizabeth Lampert PR, a crisis communication and media strategist. She can be reached at 925-932-4420 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lara Cupit is a crisis communications and media specialist in the social and traditional areas of public relations. She can be reached at LaraCupit@gmail.com
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