Your first steps are to mobilize the team and review your communications plan, modifying it to fit the situation, as needed. Then:
Whatever the crisis, your responses during the first 24 hours are very important. You need to demonstrate concern, care and empathy. People are often emotional. They will not “hear” rational arguments until you get past their emotions.
So deal with the feelings first. Specifically:
- Express your concern. State that you’re trying to find out the cause (or describe the cause if you know it). Explain what is being done to correct the problem. Describe the steps being taken to assure it doesn’t happen again (if possible). It’s doubtful you will have all this information immediately, but you will probably be able to cover most of these points in the first few media briefings.
- If anyone has been hurt or killed, express your condolences immediately. Be sympathetic. Do not reveal the victims’ names until the families have been personally notified.
- Get bad news out quickly and move on. People are very forgiving, but they do not like to be deceived.
- If a mistake has been made, admit it and try to rebuild credibility and confidence.
- Accept responsibility, whether you’re actually to blame or not. No one thought Johnson & Johnson put cyanide in Tylenol in 1982. But the company recalled the product at a cost of approximately $100 million. Tylenol has continued to sell well. And, more than 30 years later, J&J’s handling of the Tylenol crisis is still regarded as the gold standard in effective crisis management.
- Make your responses conversational in tone. On 9/11, Rudy Guiliani stood out as a caring, compassionate leader, partly because he spoke simply and clearly.
- Point out anything that might be positive in the situation. Perhaps casualties were kept low because a comprehensive evacuation procedure was in place. Maybe the company is providing generous severance packages for its laid-off employees. Perhaps the organization is getting supplies to people affected by a natural disaster.
- Don’t talk “off the record.” There really is no such thing for the media.
- Avoid saying “no comment.” Studies show that people think you’re guilty. You can, however, say that you cannot discuss a particular matter, or that it is too soon to be sure what really happened.
- If you do not know the answer to a question, state that. Offer to get back to the reporter as soon as you have the information. Most reporters understand that you won’t have all the facts instantly.
- Do not speculate or repeat unconfirmed reports. Only reveal the information that you have verified. It helps to use phrasing such as “what we know now is….” or “we have verified that….”
Control the communication.
- Communicate honestly, openly and often. Set up regular media briefings and keep to the schedule.
- Provide all reporters the same information at the same time. Don’t play favorites.
- Post information online. Activate your “dark” website. Start a crisis blog.
- Keep the media away from the accident scene, victims, survivors and relatives until a legal authority approves such access.
- Make your spokesperson available to answer reporters’ questions. If the media see that you’re trying to help them cover the story, they are more likely to cooperate.
- Assign someone to answer phone calls from reporters. If the spokesperson cannot take the call right away, promise to get back to the reporter as quickly as possible. Keep your promise.
- Monitor coverage. Get back to any reporters who have the story materially wrong and try to correct their impressions.
Communicate directly with your employees and other important audiences.
Do not rely on the media to communicate with your employees and other important audiences. Use your website, email, blogs and other means to get factual, accurate information directly to your important constituents.
Remember that all your employees are PR representatives. If they feel secure and believe that the organization is dealing appropriately with the situation, they will project that confidence.
At the same time, don’t tell your employees anything you would not want to see on the news. Reporters might approach them directly, hoping for a “scoop.”
Cope with an online crisis.
If the offensive communication is on a website, discussion group or email list, try to find out what lead to the dissatisfaction.
Look for some common ground. If you made a mistake, fix it. Rogue sites have bashed companies just because someone did not receive ordered merchandise. Once the product arrived, the sites disappeared.
Websites such as www.snopes.com, which identifies urban legends, may be helpful in countering a false claim.
In any event, try to resolve issues peacefully. If you’re antagonistic, the situation could easily deteriorate.
My next post will discuss what to do after a crisis.