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Communicating in Tough Times

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Suddenly, the unthinkable is happening at your organization, and it’s all over the news… a prominent staff member was arrested, an active shooter was on campus, or the organization is in some way responsible for an accident, harmful product, or decision. Thanks to advancements in digital technology, word of an organization’s crisis can spread quicker than the organization is able to respond. In a split second, mobile devices are out, and the crisis is now a video, streaming live online. Investors or board members are angry and the community is demanding answers. What are you going to tell them?

Your Reputation is at Stake

Who can forget the United Airlines passenger who was forcibly removed from an overcrowded flight in 2017? Or the Carnival Cruise ship that stranded 4,200 people in 2013 with limited power and sanitation?

Between 2010 and 2017, headlines with the word “crisis” and the name of one of the top 100 companies as listed by Forbes appeared 80% more often than in the previous decade according to McKinsey on Risk 2017. Despite how common these crises have become, nearly half of marketers also admitted they don’t currently have a crisis communication plan in place and only a third said they work with a PR agency offering crisis management services determined by a recent Hotwire Global Report.

It’s likely your organization will face some sort of crisis or difficult situation requiring the organization to communicate with the public and the media. How an organization responds to a crisis can be the difference between a ruined reputation and trusted brand.

The organization’s employees, stakeholders, and the public deserve transparency during these critical situations. Revealing all of the information the organization knows about the situation, as well as the organization’s plan for recovery is crucial to rebuilding trust with individuals. People want to see organizations own up to their mistakes and be held accountable to do what is right.

In most cases the organization will want to hold a press conference soon after the news of a crisis is made public. If there is a public relations or communications team available, work closely with them to determine your key words and messages and practice your response. Prepare for the press conference by brainstorming as many questions as the team can think of that the media will ask and how to answer them. Be careful not to fall into the trap of speculation or answering opinion-based questions, be open and honest but don’t talk about uncertainties, stick with the facts. Don’t assume or provide insight on to what could have happened or what might happen.

It is recommended that all organizations prepare for communicating during tough times by creating a crisis communication plan. After the plan is created, it should be revisited at least once a year and all employees should be familiar with it. It’s likely the media will attempt to reach out to employees during a crisis. An employee needs to know whether or not they are allowed to speak with the media, and if so, what they should say, and if not, who they should refer the media to. Creating a crisis communication plan in advance will help the organization develop a response quickly and jump into action.

To help you understand all a crisis communication plan entails, Meredith College, Youngstown State University, and Happy Town Humane Society offer detailed examples.

Ignoring a crisis won’t make it go away. Communicate proactively to get your organization in front of the crisis and to guide the messages the media are delivering.

Communicate During Tough Times in 3 Steps

  • Start by writing down every crisis your organization has experienced in the past, and every crisis you can think of that could possibly happen to your organization. Research the crisis that have happened to people in your industry.
  • Examples include: a data breach, a faulty product or product recall, personnel crisis (sexual harassment scandal, regulation violation, financial fraud etc.), mass shootings, construction defect, natural disasters, labor and employment issues, a social media post gone viral, or any negligence or scandal.
  • For each scenario, think about how well your organization is prepared to handle a crisis. Would employees know who to report to if something happened to the physical building of the organization? Do you have the systems necessary to support crisis response in place?
  • Decide what methods of communication you will use first to address each crisis. Consider: social media, speaking with journalists, emailing all stakeholders, holding a press conference etc.
  • Think about what key messages you would say in each scenario. These maybe used, or variations of these maybe used during a crisis. By thinking ahead, public relations and communication teams are able to get messages out quickly after a crisis hits.
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  • You will likely be talking to many forms of the media after a crisis; newspapers, tv, radio, online journalists, etc. Hosting a press conference can consolidate and allow everyone to hear the same message and ask questions.
  • Take ownership of the situation and be empathic. Explain as much as you can about the situation, and if you can’t explain something, explain why you aren’t able to.
  • Reveal what the organization’s plan will be going forward, or as much as you know about how the organization plans to recover from the crisis.
  • It’s important to open the lines of communication by providing a crisis hotline via telephone, in-person location, mobile application, website, or another method of communication. Dedicating employees to monitor this communication is helpful in providing the community with a timely response. The key is that this facilitates two-way communication between the organization, its employees, stakeholders, and the community.
  • Do what you say you will do to overcome the obstacle. If your company experienced a data breach exposing customer information, follow-through until every customer’s information is safe again.
  • Continue to keep the community updated about progress the organization is making or changes to the plan.
  • Continue listening to your stakeholders to support rebuilding relationships and trust.
  • After the crisis, analyze what worked well and areas the organization can improve their response before the next crisis.
  • Revisit your crisis communication plan yearly to make adjustments for changes in the environment, technologies, and culture of the organization.

Stop Digging

Communicate about the crisis as openly and honestly as possible. Don’t try to leave out information, mislead the public or the media, or avoid owning up to the crisis. The crisis may feel detrimental at the time. However, in the long-run, the attempt to cover it up can leave an organization’s reputation in shambles.

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