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March 9, 2017 Crisis comms, definition and best practice

Ella Minty, reputation management and stakeholder engagement director

This comment piece first appeared on the CIPR’s news site, Influence.

Recently, @CommsChat moderated a very interesting Twitter chat on crisis communications. The questions they asked were rather interesting and, I could argue, not quite typical for such a topic. Usually, when we speak about crisis communication we like to focus on tools, tactics and immediate results – what we seem to sometimes overlook are the strategic components of the crisis, those which go beyond soundbites and public statements.

The first question they asked was related to the definition of crisis communication, not to that of ‘crisis.’ Many answers were provided with regard to the definition of a crisis but the overarching concept of crisis communication did not strongly come through: the communication suite that requires leadership support, timely and verifiable information, public interface and fact-based views.

Without the appropriate support from the organisation’s leadership, there can be no communication of any kind – regardless how much we, the PR/communications practitioners, would argue the need to ‘go public’ if the leadership disagrees with it, there’s nothing we can do.

Equally, to be able to communicate in a crisis we need timely and verifiable information. If the most recent information available is, let’s say, two days old, that can hardly be timely! The key part in a crisis, as the events unfold, is to be able to use the latest data/details you have and present it/them in a verifiable manner to the public(s).

There needs to be someone, at any point in time, you can pick up the phone to and ask: ‘Is this true?’ The last thing we can afford to do in a crisis is assume that what we have been told/given to run with is accurate and correct – trust me, it often isn’t. Don’t let the heat and pressure of the moment cloud your professional judgement – you cannot afford to be dragged into it because you are the sound of reason for many there.

Your public interface needs not be just one individual, nor does he/she need to be the most senior person in the organisation – the best public interface you need to put forward is the most credible one, the one that can provide everyone in that room and everyone watching the news or listening in, with the assurance that he/she is in control, that he/she is fully aware of the implications and that he/she knows what it is all about.

The last thing you need in a crisis is to put forward a CEO/board member who has very little empathy, lacks a strong personality and talks in a ‘wooden language’ – if you do that, you might as well go home and lock yourself in the bedroom. It is not the leadership’s position to advise you, the comms/PR professional, who should be talking to whom, on what and in which case. That is your business and yours alone!

You are the one who must tell the leadership who you would need to have trained as the most suitable spokesperson(s) in a crisis. There will be times when a completely non-media trained technical expert would have much more credibility and media appeal than any other ‘smooth’ spokesperson – that uncertainty or, if you wish, clear lack of training, will work in that spokesperson’s favour because no one will doubt that he/she is not telling the truth or he/she has something to hide and has been trained to spin the truth.

Move away from the fallacy of one spokesperson only and from that of the CEO/chairperson being the most suitable voice for the organisation – nothing further from the truth. A full-blown crisis is not the right time to give your CEO ‘air time’ – that can prove fatal not just for him/her, but for the business too, and for you in terms of your actual competence/knowledge to understand the extremely complex landscape of communicating in a crisis. It may be obvious but, as I said above, the first thing that needs to be done is to get your facts straight and, as much as possible, build a timeline.

Our worst and most dangerous enemy is to assume: that we know what happened, why it happened and what the effect is going to be.

You need to find out, in this exact order, WHAT HAPPENED, WHERE IT HAPPENED (exactly), WHEN IT HAPPENED and WHO WAS INVOLVED/AFFECTED/INJURED/KILLED. Although extremely tempting, never jump at WHY IT HAPPENED – you, and likely not even those on the ground, know exactly the reason why. It’s about cause and effect: you can say that, for instance, a piece of equipment failed and caused the injury of the person (that’s the effect), but you cannot expand on the reason the equipment failed (the cause).

Any assumption publicly made in a crisis will only lead to your having to retract it at a later date and, as such, lose credibility and trust. When faced with a crisis or when you are a crisis-prone organisation, credibility and trust are of utmost importance. These need to be very clear and well captured in the statement you’ll be issuing – a crisis statement is not a press release, nor is it the opportunity for you to speak about your CSR and commitment to planting trees and building community centres!

You’ll have the opportunity to add those on at a later date. Right now, in the heat of it all, you need to show that you’re in control, you know exactly what’s going on and that, first of all, you are the most reliable source of information, not speculation.

What do you think? Continue the #CommsChat with Ella Minty on Twitter.

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