Erik Bernstein crisis communications

Crisis Communication Strategy: First 5 Things To Do When a Crisis Breaks

A major part of any crisis communication strategy is doing the preparedness and prevention work before you find yourself facing true crisis-level events that threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt operations and/or damage reputation.

While I’ll certainly hope not many need to put these techniques into action anytime soon, the reality is that every business encounters a real deal, can’t-avoid-it, crisis at one time or another.

When the time does come, knowing exactly what to do is key to a quick return to “business as usual”, and to help our crisis communications experts have put together a list of the First 5 Things To Do When a Crisis Breaks for you:

Assemble your crisis management team

Hopefully you’ve already determined who your crisis management team – the group necessary to make important decisions about what to do or say in relation to sensitive events – is in advance. This typically includes top management and heads of key functions like PR or operations. Most true crises will call for your attorney to chime in, along with any other outside experts needed to complement existing in-house skills. Some of the most common might include experts in online search or those with subject matter expertise like foodborne illness specialists, and of course I have to mention crisis communications specialists as well!

Assess the situation

Information is key to successful crisis communications and reputation management. Reacting without assessing the situation is a classic “shoot first and ask questions afterwards” moment in which your organization could become the primary victim.

Key items you need to determine during your initial assessment include: How much interest is there? Who might we need to communicate with about this issue? Where are people outside our organization discussing the issue and what are they saying? What precisely is the cause of the crisis? Was there an actual mistake? Are we seeing a reaction to a factual misunderstanding or misinformation that’s gone too far?

The list will vary from situation to situation but the core of it remains the same – know the Who, What, When, Where, Why and Hows of the situation inside and out before you take further action.

Create a game plan

Combining the skills your crisis management team brings to the table with the information gained from a thorough and complete assessment, you’ll want to create an initial game plan.

For example, if the bulk of the negativity connected to a crisis is happening in Facebook conversations, you may want to prepare a tentative statement to be posted there, monitor closely for reactions, and attempt to move anyone asking questions to some form of direct communication like email or phone rather than engaging in a back-and-forth in public. This would be supplemented by regular checks to determine if awareness and discussion of the crisis is growing or spreading to other areas, whether we’re talking another social media platform or a local town hall.

Brief your staff

Too often we see management avoid telling staff there’s a crisis happening right under their noses. If an issue has truly elevated to crisis level then every single person in your organization becomes a part of that process – whether you like it or not! This is critical because you need everyone to understand exactly what they should, and should not, be doing when it comes to any discussion of the problem at hand. For most it will be a simple reminder to refer any questions about sensitive issues to your assigned spokesperson with graciousness and a smile, but in my experience skipping past this reminder is likely to result in someone slipping up.

Prepare to share

In crisis communications we base all messaging on an established set of “key messages”. These key messages are the primary pieces of messaging we want anyone we communicate with to walk away remembering. Key messages often include the more generic, things like, “We do this job because we love helping people live healthy lives”, and the specific, for example “we ensure patients recover safely from surgery by doing X, Y, and Z every time”.

Every single piece of communication about the crisis, whether it happens in person, via email, online, or in the local grocery store, needs to be based strictly on these key messages. The last thing you want in crisis is to create a, “Gotcha!”, moment, where one audience believes they’re deliberately being told something different than another. Ensuring consistency is key.

Adapt these key messages to whatever format’s needed and then prepare to share!

Winging it is not a crisis communication strategy

“Winging it” isn’t a strategy you want to rely on for success that can be replicated any time it’s needed. Though the specifics of how you go about each of these steps can and will vary from situation to situation, the overarching structure of the First 5 Things To Do When a Crisis Breaks will remain largely the same.

Erik Bernstein