Crisis Communications

Today I’ll be talking a bit about crisis communications–how to help an organization communicate with the public about what it is doing should some major event–environmental (weather), human-created (violence), governmental (policy), or other major event negatively affect their operations. Some of this also can apply to your own personal business.

Responding in the Moment

In large organizations, Public Affairs is the department usually responsible for providing the “company line” or “voice of the organization” to the public. In smaller organizations, your communications “team” might be a writer and the CEO. Regardless of the team’s size, they work together–sometimes in consultation with a lawyer–to ensure that the organization is not saying something that might get it into trouble, such as saying something unnecessarily controversial, overpromising, creates legal or financial trouble, or making a comment that makes the organization look bad.

Regardless of the situation, media releases responding to a crisis situation generally follow a reliable pattern:

  • Acknowledging the facts of the situation that has happened or is happening.
  • Expressing appropriate concern about the situation.
  • Explaining what the organization is doing in response.
  • Offering some sort of forward-looking statement regarding what the organization hopes to see happen or do in the future.

Any company can do that, and most of them do. However, there are some errors that can get an organization into trouble, making a bad situation worse, such as:

  • Not acknowledging the problem/situation.
  • Assigning blame (if it’s a human-error situation) before any investigation can take place.
  • Not demonstrating an appropriate sense of concern or urgency regarding people affected by the situation.
  • Using a negative as a sales opportunity. (There are likely exceptions to this, but it would depend on the situation and the sense of humor of your leadership.)
  • Not explaining what the organization is doing or plans to do.

Like it or not, if your organization employs a lot of people or has a major stake in a particular type of work, the public will expect it to respond to big events that impact the employees or the work.

Crisis Communication Planning

Your leadership team should be able to identify the most likely emergencies that will require communicating with the public. If you were a rocket company operating out of Florida, for example, your most likely concerns would be emergencies dealing with the rocket or perhaps hurricanes approaching your facilities. During your communication strategy sessions, you can practice framing your responses so when the real thing happens, you’ll be able to make minor changes to an existing set of releases.

You don’t want to wait until there IS an emergency to decide how to respond to one. For one thing, you’ll have the actual situation to respond to; also, you’ll be under stress due to whatever situation is occurring and the increased attention from the news media, public officials, employees, and members of the general public who might be concerned about  your response. Communications planning also should include identifying backup contingencies should the team be unable to access their primary office(s) due to the emergency at hand or the person normally responsible for communicating for the company being out of the office.

There is always the unexpected, of course, but if you have a good feel for how your leadership thinks and wants the organization’s messages shared with the public, you can apply existing messages to unusual situations. The important things to remember are to look responsible, be responsive, and follow up corporate words with actions.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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