Tips for Communicating Effectively Through a Crisis

Stressed Man

October 13, 2022

By Sarah Kelliher

Crises force companies across the United States to make tough decisions, including shifts in strategy. As my colleague, Heather Keroes, APR, shared, we live in an angry world and your company can expect to be judged by what it does or does not do. When things go south, you need to have your public relations team or agency on speed dial, but it is even more imperative to have them working now to develop a crisis communications plan.

No matter how well you manage your business, crises are nearly impossible to avoid. This has proven to be true in the last two and a half years as we have experienced a pandemic, historic social justice movements, a heated political climate and a record-high inflation rate.

According to PwC’s first Global Crisis Survey, global crises fall into seven categories: operational (the most common), technological, humanitarian, financial, legal, human capital and reputational. In our experience, most crises span several categories at once. An operational crisis can impact corporate reputation, create legal and financial headaches, and impact your internal team.

Our firm was reminded of this about a year ago, when a local organization hired us to help build a crisis communications plan. Executives were anticipating a major shift in operations, resulting in workforce reduction and disruption to some services.

Although no two crises are the same, several key principles successfully guided our team and our client through the process. These may also be helpful for you the next time your business finds its back against the wall.

Prepare your crisis communications plan early, often and with the right people.

If you don’t already have a crisis communications plan ready before a crisis occurs, you are behind. According to JOTW Communications, 59% of business communicators say they have a communications strategy drafted, but only 45% admit to having a documented crisis communications plan.

Having a crisis communications plan on hand ensures you have a clear process to reach your key audiences and keep them informed. Most importantly, it allows them to understand how you are going to address problems.

While we braced for our client’s operational announcement, we met with them numerous times over several weeks. Together, we brainstormed different crisis scenarios and crafted communications strategies to ensure they were as prepared as possible for each.

Your crisis plan should be a living document … it should never be abandoned or left on a shelf. Aim to review your crisis plans at least every six months to ensure they still apply to your current team, business activities and facilities. These biannual touch points are a perfect opportunity to regroup with all the key players of your team—both internally and externally. If you work regularly with a public relations agency like Curley & Pynn, invite them to join your crisis planning meetings and help them better understand what role you need them to play when a crisis does occur. Regular meetings like these also serve as an opportunity to keep your public relations team in the loop about emerging issues that could become crises for your business.

Why is it important to keep your public relations team closely involved in crisis communications planning? We are the “ethical compass” of our organizations. During a crisis, the C-suite relies on us to lead their organization’s response. From drafting speeches for executive leadership and fielding media inquiries, to managing press conferences and monitoring buzz on social media, support from professional communicators is critical to an appropriate crisis response.

Think carefully about who you want to reach, why, when and how before responding (if time allows).

When a crisis happens, you may feel an enormous sense of urgency to get a message out the door. While some crises – like natural disasters – require an immediate response to prevent further risk or danger, pausing in some cases may be beneficial. The next time your business faces a crisis, if possible, take a moment to assess the problem before communicating with your audience.

During a crisis, emotions are high. If you have the luxury of time (even just an hour or two), process the situation before responding. Do not feel like you need to be the first one to post on social media, send a company-wide email or make a public statement.

Jeff Domansky, known as “The PR Coach,” says that reacting too soon, or over-reacting, can unintentionally accelerate a crisis and that you should always use your best judgment on when it is best to speak. Before distributing any internal or external communications, lean on the expertise of your public relations team about when and how to communicate during a crisis.

Ensuring the right person delivers your message is just as important as the timing of your response. For example, if your organization is facing a financial crisis, it may make more sense for an update to come from the chief financial officer versus the chief executive officer. They are likely closer to the issue and directly oversee the department in question. If multiple organizations are involved, it may be more appropriate for someone else – like a corporate partner – to serve as the spokesperson.

For consistency and clarity, always identify who the right spokesperson should be for a crisis from the get-go and then craft a message for them that is aligned with their leadership style and the situation at-hand.

Don’t lose sight of your company mission.

When things get tough, your company mission statement should serve as your guiding star. When communicating with your audience during a crisis, remind them of your mission and show them you mean what you say.

This is especially important for non-profit or mission-driven organizations – like our client – that have a clear and distinctive purpose that shines through in everything they do.

Throughout the crisis communications plan process, it was important to remind our client their audience deserved an explanation of why certain decisions were made and, most importantly, how they tied into their culture.

As a result, during planning meetings, we often had the company’s mission statement and values on paper in front of us. This constantly reminded us to think back to the foundation our client had operated on for nearly 75 years and tie every piece of our messaging to it, where appropriate.

Thanks largely to this mission-centric preparation, our client successfully navigated the transition with minimal difficulty. They even received messages from several members of their target audience, thanking them for the way they handled the situation and noting how evident it was that the decision was made with great care for those impacted.

Although you should not expect thank-you notes after making it through a crisis, this is a great example of how preparing for a crisis with your mission in mind enables your business to come out stronger on the other side.

Incorporate key messages into your crisis response.

Like many things in life, there is a balance when it comes to communicating with your key audiences. Although consistent updates about a crisis are usually well-intentioned, overly detailed or inaccurate communication can result in confusion, annoyance and frustration.

When your company is preparing for or dealing with a tough situation, work with your public relations team to identify your key message points and milestones for communication. At Curley & Pynn, we leverage our Message Matrix® system for clients, which has been developed over more than two decades to help businesses communicate key messages they want to convey.

This process begins by identifying potential issues and then developing specific key messages to address each of them. After that, we work with our clients to identify relevant spokespeople for each issue and work with them one-on-one to practice conveying their key messages. The result is a system in which you can have confidence next time a crisis knocks on your door.

It’s only a matter of time before your business faces its next big crisis. Are you prepared with a crisis communications plan that will keep your reputation intact? If not, let us help you.

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