Part one of a two-part article.
Effective communications during a crisis can make the different between quickly resolving the situation and it becoming a nightmare. There are many principles of good communications, but we’ve assembled 12 major principles that can help you take charge of the next crisis.
1. Designate a single point of contact for the press, but have a backup.
Yes, you’re very busy with your crisis, but that doesn’t really matter to a reporter working on a tight deadline. Set up both an email address and a phone number, both of which should be manned just about 24/7. Otherwise, reporters hungry for information will go somewhere else, often to your detriment. On the flip side, if you are as helpful as possible to reporters then you start to build those invaluable “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationships that can lead to more favorable coverage of your organization in the future.
Be sure to have at least one backup point of contact. Someone needs to be easily reached, especially during business hours. It’s also important that all your staff knows to direct any outside inquiries about the crisis to the proper people; for example, Public Relations.
2. The CEO/President isn't usually the right person to be the spokesperson.
Reserve them for press contact when a critical message needs to be conveyed, a more authoritative presence is needed, or there is controversy. Have the spokesperson handle the routine communications.
The most serious of situations still call for the CEO to speak from the start. In the midst of a major disaster, the public wants to see the senior staff as the face of the company, not a spokesperson that nobody has ever heard of.
The blog post “4 Myths of the CEO as Crisis Spokesperson” reveals several reasons why the CEO is often not the right person to be the point of contact.
3. Appoint a crisis leader with a backup.
Executives are not the best people for this. Your crisis leader does not necessarily have to be the most senior person in the office, but they do need to be one of the most versatile. Their responsibilities may shift from managing personnel to coordinating supply shipments to evacuating offices all within hours, so they need a firm grasp of what your organization requires to stay functional, as well as the resources at its disposal. If you don’t have an in-house crisis manager and are pondering where to start looking for your crisis leader, we’d suggest first looking at Human Resources.
And most importantly, the crisis leader needd to be appointed ahead of time, not in the heat of the crisis.
4. Have a crisis communications plan.
Cover all the bases, including media, social media, employees, stakeholders. While this could be an entire post in its own right, we’re going to cover the broad basics here. Any crisis communications plan should adhere to what crisis management expert Jonathan Bernstein calls “The Five Tenets of Crisis Communications”: prompt, compassionate, honest, informative and interactive.
- Be prepared to communicate quickly on all forms of media, as well as both internally and externally.
- Show compassion and understanding for those affected by your crisis.
- Don’t lie or “spin” the truth.
- Share as much information as possible
- Make sure there are ways for your audience to communicate questions or concerns directly to you.
5. Practice your crisis communications plan.
You wouldn’t step into a championship sports match without ever hitting the practice field, would you? Well, it’s no different for crisis communications. You simply are not capable of doing a truly excellent job unless you put in time going over each person’s crisis role and working through various crisis simulations that will test each individual’s readiness along with the plan as a whole.
Using an online virtual command center (incident management software), you can create pre-defined scenarios that can be used during practice runs. The software enables you to run tests using the same tools that will be used to manage communications during an actual crisis.
6. Have tools in place to monitor the news media and social media.
The most popular social monitoring suites, TweetDeck and HootSuite, have free versions with plenty of functionality for basic tracking of social media. There are also quite a few paid tools, such as Radian6, that will monitor traditional media for mentions or specific words. Understand that these tools are aids, not be-all end-all solutions. At the end of the day a real-live human being is still your best tool for locating relevant information and discussion regarding your organization.