It happens every day. In fact, chances are, it’s happening right now, as you’re reading this. Someone is doing something that will lead to a public relations crisis. In many of these cases, people don’t do those things knowing the kind of storm it will create. Often, things happen, and people are left having to deal with the impending crisis.
When that happens to you, what can you do… what will you do? If you don’t have a plan in place, that dramatically increases your chances of taking a bad situation and making it much, much worse. However, if you follow some simple guidelines, you will find yourself in a much better situation when the crisis happens.
It’s vital that, if you don’t already have a plan in place (you should, but if you don’t) then you start making a plan the moment you feel things are about to go wrong. During this process, say nothing definitive to anyone until you know you can say something that will, preferably, make the problem better, but at least not make it any worse.
Step 1: Assessment
This is the information gathering step. You need to learn as much as you can as fast as you can, and you need to have methods in place to assess the accuracy, relevance, and importance of the information you are gathering.
Step 2: Division of Labor
Form a team that will both craft the crisis response and determine any legal ramifications of this circumstance. You should have company leadership, crisis communicators and an attorney involved. Each member of the team should be given a clear role and specific responsibilities. During this process, you should work on two lines of action, a short-term message to get out ASAP and a long-term strategy to repair the damage and begin to rebuild credibility.
Step 3: The initial response
Clarity and brevity are key here. You don’t want to be too short, but you don’t want to risk saying too much during the early stages of crisis response. You do, however, need to be clear, leaving little or no room for misunderstanding, intentional or otherwise. If and when you are misquoted, you want it to be obvious that’s not what you said. Tone, here, is also important. You don’t want to come off as nonchalant or disconnected. You want to express appropriate empathy and responsibility, as well as confidence that the ship is being put back on course.
Step 4: Follow up
After a clear, brief comment, there will be questions, so prepare for follow up. Don’t just offer a “no comment” and walk away. Here, it’s a good idea to have a “hold back” from your initial response, so you can give people “more,” even if you don’t actually have “more” to give them. Ideally though, you will move further into your investigative process, enabling you to offer more in the way of clarity, empathy, confidence, and correction.
Bonus tip: Do. Not. Lie.
You may not want to tell the entire truth, or you may not want to disclose all the facts all at once (or ever), but make sure what you do say is accurate. Along these lines, it’s generally a very bad idea to guess or to speculate. Form a statement that communicates what you know in a way that is accurate and reflects well. Just don’t try to lead people down a path. That will more than likely do more harm than good.