How to communicate effectively in a crisis

Cedric Voigt

Recent events, namely the pandemic and then the situation in the Ukraine, have highlighted more than ever the absolute necessity of having a crisis communication strategy.  For example, the UK government’s pandemic planning was cut as part of its austerity programme pre-COVID and its muddled response when the pandemic first hit showed the folly of that decision.  Ignore crisis planning at your peril because if you're not prepared, you may really pay for it.

And if you do have a crisis plan , can you say exactly where it is and when it was last updated?  Your crisis comms plan should be a working document.  There is a reason why those in the NHS, even if they have worked as medical professionals for 30 years, have to repeat basic life support training every six months.  Crises can do strange things to our responses and to have a clear plan that’s fresh in the mind stops the panicky side of the brain from taking over.  

Bad times are just around the corner

In good times a crisis communications strategy may feel like something that can be delayed while you deal with whatever’s pressing that week, but beware complacency;  look how fast the world changed when the pandemic hit. Remote working has added an extra layer of complexity. The pre-COVID days of everyone being in an office and able to dive into a meeting room and pull together a plan are over.  It's even more important than ever to have clear lines of communication in crisis PR. 

Public relations crisis

Of course, it may not be an international crisis that you need to respond to, but even a smaller one affecting your sector or even just your organisation can take its toll.  Having a crisis communications plan in place is vital whatever the size of the issue as without one you are reliant on the snap decisions of the individuals on the ground and everyone reacts differently to an emergency. Just knowing that you have an approved, step by step guide, you will practise regularly to anticipate,  to who says what and when in just such a situation will bring huge peace of mind. 

Writing your plan

So how does a crisis management firm recommend that you devise your crisis communications plan? 

Firstly, identify your goals depending on the type of crisis, an internal one may not be the same as an external one. These will most likely be around communication to staff about safeguarding and reassuring customers and stakeholders.  

Who needs to know?

Next identify, as far as you can, who will need to be informed within your organisation and external agencies. Make sure contacts are up to date and that the contact held is the most appropriate person to take action. 

Avoid the temptation to disseminate too much information to too many people. Tell the right people the right information at the right time by creating a hierarchy of prime and secondary movers. Legal, HR and finance obviously go in prime, external agencies are second and so on. 

Where’s your risk? 

Identify your most likely crisis scenarios and think big – how many of us would have picked ‘worldwide potentially fatal virus that would immobilise the world for two years’? Where are your risk areas? What can you do now to mitigate them, and in a crisis situation what would your solution be? How would you articulate that? Where are you most vulnerable, where are you concerned the story may get inflated? 

How will you communicate? 

Which channels are you going to use to disseminate information if the worst happens? Many people, journalists included, will immediately turn to social media to find out what’s happening. If your social media team is not ready with a clear version of events then you’ve lost control of the narrative. 

The power of the press

Bear in mind, if you are a company that has always steered clear of the press for fear of negative coverage, you will not have any journalists that you know well, to turn to in a crisis situation. If you have cultivated contacts in key publications they might be more inclined to listen to your side of the story. Ask your PR company for their estimation of the most useful journalists for you in a crisis and if you’ve ignored them thus far, now is the time to start building bridges.  Don’t wait until the bridge is on fire. 

What will you communicate? 

Create holding statements and establish who’s in the hot seat for answering questions. Ideally this should be the CEO – we’ve all seen interviews in which it’s clear the person looking panicked on camera has been shoved there while the senior management team hides. Have an information pack on your company prepared by your PR team readily available to send to journalists so they’re not having to drag information off the internet which may be unhelpful and wrong.  

Analyse, acknowledge (apologise, if necessary) and act. Don’t stay passive during a crisis, as minutes are counting, but do take time to think and assess the situation. The worst thing is to do nothing.

Review

If you are unfortunate enough to have to implement your plan in real life, as a crisis communications agency we also recommend you do a review afterwards. Don’t let the relief and gratitude you may well feel toward your colleagues that you got through the situation blind you to where things went wrong. They do go wrong, and they are an opportunity to get it right next time. Which brings us to the next point…

Work in progress…

Keep reviewing your crisis plan. The plan should not be fixed and unchanging. People move, situations change, new information emerges, new technology supersedes existing processes. It also keeps it fresh in your mind. Your crisis communications strategy document should be regularly worked on and easily accessible, not stored in an obscure part of the server where no-one will be able to find it.  

And finally, without wanting to sound flippant, remember that it will pass.  Look after yourself, eat and sleep so that you are approaching the situation in as good a physical shape as you can manage. It’s happened to the best of us, and the worst, and it will again.

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60 Gray’s Inn Road
London, WC1X 8AQ
+44 20 7078 7272
infouk@balloupr.com
Ballou PR GmbH
Invalidenstraße 7
10115 Berlin
+49 30 24 63 07 19
infode@balloupr.com
38, rue Etienne Marcel
75002 Paris
+33 1 42 22 24 10
infofr@balloupr.com
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