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When $#*! Hits the Fan
When $#*! Hits the Fan
How to communicate in a crisis

Some days it just feels like crisis is in the air. Communications people, you know the feeling, right? Those nights when every headline you come across is even more anxiety inducing than the last. On days like these, I find myself taking mental stock of my clients and the current state of their business, unnecessarily imagining the worse case scenario.

Blame citizen journalists and the reach of the Internet. The immediacy of Twitter and Facebook. Hell, blame the phases of the moon if that feels right. My point is that in big business (and small business too), crisis situations are inevitable.

Take yesterday, for example. Six out of the night’s top eight stories were about crisis situations: a data hack, a foreign financial crisis, a shooting spree, an ultra-rich Republican gone rogue on social media. A sitcom legend and a fast-food pitchman simultaneously under attack for some pretty dark accusations.

No brand or industry is immune.

In fact, I’m getting sweaty palms right now, just thinking about my former life in New York, doing PR for major travel brands. Missing passengers, drug cartels infringing on tourist territory, H1N1, hurricanes and tsunamis. A drunken rant here, a racist tweet there. And who could forget the Carnival “poop cruise”?

In times of crisis, difficult and important decisions will need to be made, ready or not.

But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. If you have the right team and practices in place, you actually can master the disaster.

Be Prepared
Very rarely can you predict a crisis. But you can choose to be prepared. When the seas are calm, take that time to create a dark site, which can be populated with key messages and made public when needed. Put together a media contact list and build connections with reporters that will prove beneficial later on.

Fire drills are only effective if they’re practiced. Have your company go though pseudo crises regularly. Who will be calling the IT person? Who will be drafting the press release? The goal is to make this process second nature. And if you don’t have a team trained in crisis communication, be prepared to write the check and move out of the way.

Be In Control
When a crisis rears its ugly head, you have no choice but to act. Mobilize the troops immediately and gain control of the situation. Gather the facts, pull your templates, and work to get ahead of the story. As PR pro Lanny Davis says, “Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself.”

Arguing around a conference table for too long can result in wandering minds and fabricated stories fed by rumors and public perception. Without action and control, before you know it your audience will turn on you, your partners will cut ties, and you will be the villain in the public’s eye. Just ask Trump.

Be Social
“Twitter makes it possible for a public official to create a round-the-clock press conference, simultaneously informing their staff, the public and the press.” –Andrew Rasiej, Founder of the Personal Democracy Forum

We live in a world of 24/7 news, blogs, tweets, status updates, and niche-media. Which means we have days, not weeks, to address the issue. Use this to your advantage. Social media can be valuable in a crisis, especially when it comes to communicating directly with reporters who will ultimately frame the story.

When addressing issues on Twitter or Facebook, remember to keep it civilized and keep it brief. Take the disgruntled customer offline and discuss the situation out of the public eye. Keep calm and be in control.

Be Honest + Empathetic
The worst thing you can do is to attempt to shift the blame onto someone else. Own up and take responsibility. Don’t be afraid or reluctant to face the publics or the ones you’ve wronged the most. Instead, show proper respect and speak to involved parties first and foremost.

Back to Trump again. He was in fact honest about his feelings. Unfortunately he emphasized such honesty while being unapologetic, saying, “I can never apologize for the truth,” in his interview on Fox News. His lack of sensitivity only added to the mess.

Be Positive
Once the burn begins to heal, take a breath, have a drink. Go on vacation. And be sure to learn from what happened—not just with your company, but also with others in their times of crisis. Make adjustments to your crisis plans and teams as needed.

And don’t forget to think about the future. Ask yourself “What does this open up for us?” Try to focus on the opportunity that can come from the threat. Over time, you will be able to rebuild your brand if you keep a positive voice and place yourself in the public eye for the good you are doing, not the bad that has been done.