Crisis communications in 10 steps
Every once in a while companies are faced with situations that put their reputations at risk or hold the potential to alienate audiences. Left unaddressed or not taken seriously, these situations can put a business … well, out of business.So how does a business respond to such crises in a way that is honest, appropriate and proactive? By implementing a strong crisis communications plan.

Whether your business’s crisis is a natural disaster, a product recall or the theft of customer data, you need to be prepared to disclose crises and address questions from staff, investors, the public and the media. Ideally, a preliminary crisis communications plan has already been created and stored in an identifiable binder in a central location by your communications team. The plan should outline possible scenarios and a plan for communicating to all audiences. That way, in the unfortunate event that your business is faced with an emergency, you will be prepared to handle it and ready to get into action through these ten steps:

  1. As a crisis unfolds, keep in mind that there is always a hierarchy of concern—one that for many is natural but will reinforce credibility with audiences: Be concerned for victims first, employees second, and customers and investors third.
  2. The second a potential crisis rears its head, contact senior level staff and communications personnel immediately.
  3. If the crisis occurs on site, secure the area of the crisis through closed doors or banner roping and gather facts, working cooperatively with authorities.
  4. Work with communications staff or outsourced experts to create a communications command center and designate a spokesperson. Create talking points and key messages, anticipating the questions that will be asked and practicing the responses. Also make sure this command center is armed with multiple phone lines, printers, fax machines, computers with Internet access and fully stocked office materials, like pens that won’t stray far and pads of paper.
  5. Your messaging should communicate your action plan—what are the next steps? What is your business doing to resolve the situation and ensuring that it does not happen again? Ultimately, though, actions speak louder than words—you’ll be expected to follow through with this action plan and questioned if you don’t.
  6. Avoid jargon in your messages. This can work against your messages and key points by creating further confusion. Additionally, don’t speculate in your messages—just stick to the facts and as the facts become available, provide updates.
  7. Be accountable and don’t blame others. It is possible to be accountable without admitting guilt or wrongdoing by simply acknowledging that an event has occurred.
  8. Tell the truth. Because the likelihood is that if you haven’t, someone will find out and you’ll have an even bigger communications disaster on your hands.
  9. Remember that the media is not the bad guy—they can and often will help you get your message out during a crisis or emergency. That being said, there is no such thing as “off the record” and it’s not advisable to argue with reporters or go on the defensive. Perhaps most importantly when dealing with the media, know that silence is not golden, nor is a statement of “no comment.” Not commenting opens the floor to the public filling the void with rumor and speculation and, in many cases, doing so appears to be admission of wrongdoing or apathy. There are of course situations in which you will be legally prohibited from providing a direct comment to a crisis such as a pending lawsuit or legal action—but usually in these situations you should still be able to offer some sort of response.
  10. Use multiple channels to get your message out. Media are often the first to come knocking when word of your emergency or crisis occurs, but keep the message in your control by consistently communicating through multiple channels. Utilize social media such as Twitter™, Facebook or blogs and update your website as the crisis or emergency is dealt with. Many companies have found great success in temporarily turning their home page or adding a specific landing page into an online communications command center. Larger companies also often implement hotlines for those affected by the crisis or emergency to call for information or assistance. For crises with less immediacy, promote this hotline in person and via direct mail with a letter and a memorable item, like a Healing Hand Key Tag for giving a hand or a Puzzle Piece stress ball for putting the pieces back together. Don’t discount the power of personal phone calls or e-mails, either.

When it comes to successfully handling a crisis, preparation is key and so is communication. To learn more about crisis communications and these ten steps, read our Blue Paper® and prepare your business or organization to meet any situation head on.

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