Navigating the minefield of crisis communications

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Like death and taxes, crisis is also a matter of certainty - it will occur at some point. It is unfortunate, but it’s simply an uncomfortable reality that we’ve all come to accept. Whether it is an organizational mishap like Toyota’s mechanical issues at the beginning of the decade, or a natural disaster that limits the control human beings have on the outcome, people look at the authority figure in those instances to have a command of the situation and keep us all informed. Thus, crisis communications are a necessity that spans across industries and the public and private sectors guaranteeing a diverse range of problems to solve.

When a crisis happens, the first thing any organization needs to do is to revert to its plan. When time is of the essence, anxiety is going through the roof and information is in high demand, an organization needs to have a systematic approach to managing a crisis - and of equal importance - communicating with internal and external stakeholders throughout a very tense period. With technology providing PR professionals tools to help crisis communications operate like a well-oiled machine, there is little excuse for bottlenecks in the information flow. With that in mind, the first order of business for your communications team is to divide responsibilities.

While the technical team is on the ground investigating the cause of the issue, the communications team should already be assigning responsibilities, drafting a press statement and key messaging, as well as coaching a designated spokesperson to publicly represent the organization. Media personnel will also be your greatest ally or worst enemy if these relations aren’t handled appropriately. As soon as the organization is alerted of the situation, a representative from your communications team should reach out to the media with a holding statement – letting them know that the organization is aware of the situation and is currently gathering information. Also, it should be communicated that an official statement is forthcoming.

Within an hour of being alerted to the crisis, the communications team has to put out an initial statement - often referred to as a holding statement - to assure the public that the organization is aware of what is taking place and that the issue is currently being addressed. In this statement, it is important for your tone to be reassuring - letting the general public know that while you are gathering more information, an official statement containing information about what is being done to handle the situation is imminent.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

The timing to put out this statement is critical, as it is human nature for people to speculate, and, in no time, there are a slew of half-baked storylines and falsehoods flying around.

Avoiding the time it takes to rebut ill-informed narratives allows your teams to focus on more important matters and helps to keep everyone looking at the issue through the same lens.

Additionally, social media provides organizations facing crises with a platform to talk directly with their supporters online. A quick social media post to acknowledge the unfolding situation goes a long way to reassure your followers that the issue is being addressed and that they’re being kept in the loop.

Taking the initiative by reaching out to the media and speaking directly to the people that support your organization alleviates a little bit of the immediate pressure at the onset of the crisis as well as it nullifies misinformation and competing narratives. This buys the technical team time to identify the cause of the issue and create an incident report to be shared with the executive group of the organization.

Once the incident report is evaluated by the decision makers, the communications team can be directed to finalize its statement for the press.

This statement needs to cover the “who”, “what”, “when”, “where”, “why” and “how”. Additionally, it also needs to clearly state what the organization is going to do about the situation. This is particularly crucial in an instance where the crisis occurred because of a mistake made by the organization. In such cases, it is very important that direct contact is made with the stakeholders that were affected. Of course, this may not necessarily provide a remedy to the issue. However, it does send a message to the various customers or stakeholders that the organization is holding itself accountable and is being transparent. It’s important to remember that in a time of crisis, we all appreciate empathy.

Likewise, those that are directly impacted by the crisis will appreciate more of a personal touch.

Therefore, a shorter statement should be made available with a link to the official press statement included in a post for your organization’s social media followers. As the desire for real-time updates ramps up after the first day of the crisis, the digital function of the communications team becomes even more crucial. Team members will have to be designated to monitoring social media and responding to the organization’s digital community, guided by an approved messaging strategy.

This aspect of crisis communications is two-fold – allowing you to manage the flow of information to the community, as well as capitalizing on the opportunity to mine the community’s responses to further inform the decision makers on the development of future policies. The danger of saying too much or too little cannot be understated during this time. And just as vital, the organization – specifically the spokesperson and communications personnel handling media relations and social media - must all be on the same message. Otherwise, things will go haywire fast when your company looks confused or disingenuous.

Courtesy of the New York Times

In the case of Toyota, this lesson was learned the hard way back in 2009 when the auto manufacturer experienced its infamous public relations nightmare. Upon initial reports of operator error as a result of pedals being stuck in certain models, Toyota, rather than getting its ducks in a row, inaccurately attributed the unintended acceleration issues to floor mats moving around and becoming trapped in the gas pedal well. This assertion was later debunked after additional incidents took place and Toyota had to follow up with another statement - this time, stating the cause of the issue as mechanical sticking of the gas pedal.

A key mistake in Toyota’s approach to this crisis was that it didn’t appear to have a firm understanding of the issue at hand before making a public statement, and thus, paid for it tremendously. Toyota’s recalls between 2009-2011 resulted in 7.5 million recalls of Toyota models and nearly $2.5 billion in revenue losses with further losses following a billion dollar settlement in 2012.

As industry professionals, we must understand the importance of providing the right information at the right time. Otherwise, the repercussions can be very costly.

In many instances, companies rely on their internal communications teams to handle the inundation of questions from the media and thwarting of competing narratives. For others, depending on the scale of the crisis, a firm specializing in crisis communications is also outsourced to assist in navigating what can be a public relations minefield.

Through our proven practices and thoughtful execution, the team at Fincastle Media Group has successfully helped organizations from the hospitality industry to the environmental sector traverse the rocky terrain of crisis situations. If your organization does not have a crisis communications plan or would like consultation on creating one, we would be happy to chat with you.

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