The fire alarm rings. Instantly, trained personnel leap into action. The dispatcher pinpoints the location and provides clear directions to the firemen and firewomen headed to the scene. Upon arrival, the first responders assess the situation and react with seamless teamwork and precision. Everyone has a role to play, everyone is prepared and the situation stays under control.
If an unexpected and unpleasant incident disrupts your company — accidents, scandals, defective or harmful products to name a few — are you prepared to respond?
Emergency personnel aren’t the only ones who need to be ready when an unexpected event strikes. A company’s reaction to a negative event has a direct impact on its public reputation, which in turn can impact its brand and ability to compete in the marketplace.
A thoughtful crisis communications plan, developed before a crisis hits, provides complete and succinct instructions for when you need to move quickly to get in front of bad news.
Positive PR Means Being Prepared
Have a media plan in place. Not all crisis situations attract the attention of reporters, but, when they do, an organization’s reaction and interaction with the media will have a significant impact on what happens next. To help your team be prepared to interact with the media, four steps need to be established ahead of time: Outline what constitutes a crisis. Designate a spokesperson. Create and post a call list for the designated spokesperson, communications personnel and consultant, and key project members. Determine the chain of command and define each team member’s specific roles and responsibilities.
When a situation occurs, the responsible team members should gather the pertinent facts about what happened so as to assess the situation and determine where the responsibility and legal liability lie. Next is to determine a plan of action — with key talking points — to rectify the problem, including deciding how best to respond to your most important stakeholders and the media.
Going public is the next step, when the media is at your door and on your phone. The spokesperson will typically limit what is said to news media to a factual assessment of the current situation, including what happened, where, when, to whom and how. Also share information on investigations and short- and long-term corrective measures as determined.
Anticipate. A lot of questions are headed your way. Get your key messages in order and review, review, review. If you are on the phone with a reporter, keep them in front of you. Don’t underestimate the value of role-playing as a part of your preparation. Get grilled ahead of time by your communications manager or other trusted staffer. The rehearsal time will pay off when the cameras are on.
Make your key points first and foremost. Lead with your strongest messages and continue to integrate your key messages throughout your conversation.
Be aware of deadlines. In today’s world of social media and instant posting of information, your timely responsiveness to media inquiries becomes even more critical. Say what you can when you can, but without sacrificing accuracy for speed.
Nothing is off the record. Stick to the script and your message points. It’s a reporter’s job to uncover as much information as possible. That includes what you may think is a casual conversation after the interview is over. But the interview is never over for a reporter.
Don’t speculate and don’t engage in hypotheticals. Tell your story and stick with what is known. Truth builds trust; conjecture fosters doubt. Leave out the “what ifs.”
Don’t ramble and always tell the truth. Keep your answers short and on point. Whatever you do, don’t mislead a reporter. It’s OK to repeat your key messages, but straying from them leads you into potentially dangerous territory.
Avoid “No Comment.” It’s OK to say “That’s a fair question, let me get back to you with an answer.” Then do it. Let them know when they can expect to hear from you again. If you can’t answer a question for legal reasons, say so. “No comment” often translates into an admission of guilt. Providing an explanation for why you can’t answer a question adds to your credibility instead of detracting from it.
Don’t use insider jargon. Using industry-specific terms can come across as being deceptive and condescending, hiding behind the lingo to confuse the public. Speak in plain language.
Don’t worry about repeated questions on the same issue or silence on the line. When there’s silence on the line, don’t feel the need to rush in and fill it. Wait for the reporter to ask another question and always stick to your main points.
Don’t become belligerent. As mentioned before, it’s a reporter’s job to dig for information. Cooperation, honesty about what you say — and what you can or can’t say — goes a long way. Always be polite and respectful.
Keep a watch for embers. Maintain a log of all media inquiries, including the name of the reporter and media outlet. As your situation progresses, you may want to reach out to the reporters to provide positive updates. Also track mentions of your company through a service such as Google Alerts to stay on top of public conversations about your situation. Create an ongoing search for mentions of your situation on Twitter and monitor activity on your company’s Facebook page and blogs, if you have them.
As much as you may want to react to every news item or comment, stop and assess the best way to respond. Don’t appear defensive. Stick to your talking points. Address inaccuracies.
Social media platforms are good tools for reaching out to your audience during a difficult time. Provide your own information, sticking to the same facts as provided to the media on your company website and other public-facing pages. Importantly, demonstrate the human side of your company — expressing concern for the well-being of those impacted and demonstrating your commitment to stakeholders.
Having a crisis communications plan in place is another form of insurance. You hope to never have to use it, but you want make sure it stays current and ready to go in case you do.
Denise Resnik is president of DRA Strategic Communications, which, since 1986, has been providing strategic marketing and public relations services to a variety of clients in the fields of real estate, economic development, healthcare, energy, education and hospitality.