The conventional wisdom around handling a crisis that is likely to result in negative publicity, is to focus on how you will deal with the media. Sadly, in my view, that is often what PR consultants providing crisis communications advice will do. Above all else they will want to get the media release written and prepare for potential interviews.
Preparing for the media is important but it is just one element you need to consider in your response. It is actually NOT what matters most.
At the top of my priority list for clients dealing with a reputational crisis is effective communication with key stakeholders. This will most likely include your staff and customers.
The fact is that most media coverage of an incident or an issue tends to be relatively short-lived. Journalists are easily bored and the era of the 24-hour news cycle means stories get turned over very quickly. The reporter who hotly pursued your story today will have moved on to something else by tomorrow.
On the other hand, your key stakeholders will be highly engaged for a very long time afterwards because they have a lot more skin in the game, so to speak. Will the issue impact them? Does this mean they can’t trust you anymore?
Here are a quick few rules to consider when deciding how you will communicate with stakeholders in a crisis:
1. Be proactive. The worst thing you can do is to allow your stakeholders to hear about what has happened from someone else. It doesn’t matter if that “someone else” is the 6pm News, another stakeholder or a Facebook post. The two biggest downsides of NOT being proactive are:
- The version your stakeholders hear is likely to be sensationalised or just plain wrong.
- Your lack of communication may lead to a perception of a cover-up.
2. Be as honest as you can about what has occurred. It is okay to let stakeholders know that you cannot tell them everything for particular reasons, such as legal limitations. Most reasonable people will accept that.
3. Do not speculate – only communicate the known facts.
4. Tell people what has occurred, what you are doing about it and if there is anything that they need to do.
5. Provide a commitment to maintain the flow of information over the coming days – and deliver on your promise!
6. Invite stakeholders who are concerned to contact your organisation directly. This is important because it acts like a lightning rod for worried stakeholders who might otherwise express their anxieties on social media or go to the media instead.
7. Brief your staff as much as you can about what has occurred and provide them with the opportunity to ask questions or to express their concerns. This is important because they will feel more confident to advocate on your behalf if they feel like they have been trusted and respected.
8. Encourage staff who are approached by a worried customer to direct them to you, or the right person, for follow up.
9. Proactively identify and brief those key stakeholders who have the potential to influence the opinions of others.
10. Prioritise communication with your stakeholder community until such time as the crisis is resolved. This is not the time for CEOs, in particular, to head off on holidays or disappear for that strategic planning retreat. Your visible presence is essential.
When a crisis happens it can be extremely testing – keep in mind that clear and well considered communication with your stakeholders is key to navigating a crisis response and when it comes to any crisis communications scenario.