10 Principles of Effective Crisis Communications

When unexpected crises hit a company, executives often find themselves rudderless in a monsoon of media calls. If they don’t know how to effectively communicate their company’s story, they can cause significant damage. Negative news coverage can hurt a company’s stock value and jeopardize a priceless company asset: its reputation.

A company’s reputation is most vulnerable during bankruptcies, product recalls, lawsuits and other headline-grabbing crises. The news media—the filter through which the public perceives the world—has the power to shape and alter perceptions of a company. Therefore, developing solid companywide media policies and plans before a crisis occurs is imperative.

“The savviest chief executive in the world often falls victim to a kind of paralysis when a crisis strikes,” says Steven Fink, author of Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable. “Executives often bury their heads in the sand and refuse to communicate. But adopting a bunker mentality is always to their own detriment.”

Although every crisis situation requires detailed planning tailored to fit its unique characteristics, several time-tested principles should generally be applied:

Principle 1: Have a company media policy in place.    When journalists call employees to ask for information, employees often don’t know how to handle the calls or where to refer them. They may unknowingly be quoted in the news and provide information that may damage ongoing litigation or investigations. Therefore, companies must develop and implement a media policy that outlines procedures detailing how to handle requests from the media by referring calls to the proper department or spokesperson.

Principle 2: Assign one spokesperson to communicate with journalists. Companies need strong leadership during a crisis and should rely on public-relations counsel to develop written statements, manage media inquiries and train one executive to serve as spokesperson. When speaking with journalists, the spokesperson should refer to message points previously written by communications strategists and approved by attorneys, and should tread carefully when asked to address issues outside the scope of those key messages.

Principle 3: Train telephone gatekeepers to keep accurate records. In order to develop effective strategic-communications plans, it’s important to keep accurate records of all media calls.
Assistants and other telephone gatekeepers should be trained to track such detailed information as a reporter’s name, media outlet, phone, fax, e-mail address, time and date of call, nature of call and the reporter’s deadline. These records should also include copies of any information (including fax cover sheets) that is sent to reporters.

Principle 4: Issue news releases selectively and strategically. When it becomes appropriate to issue a news release, it should outline the facts and convey the message that the company acknowledges the situation. It should state corrective measures, proactive actions and positive steps the company is taking to ensure the situation will not reoccur. Also, a news release should include important information the public may need, such as toll-free numbers, answers to frequently asked questions, etc.

Principle 5: Be candid and responsive to journalists. At all times, spokespersons should be responsive to journalists, respect their deadlines and work closely with them to communicate information that’s important for their readers. This means company spokespersons should be forthcoming about a problem and, at the same time, outline positive steps the company is taking to address the issues.

Principle 6: Know when to proactively initiate calls to reporters. Often, calling a reporter can draw more attention to the issues and give the journalist more reasons to write about an issue. During a crisis, company spokespersons should proactively contact journalists only to provide critical information that the public must know or to request corrections for factual errors.

Principle 7: Never say anything is “off the record.” Journalists may quote sources even when both sides have agreed the conversation is “off the record” or “for background purposes.” A rule of thumb: “Off the record” can really mean “on the record,” especially during sensitive crises. “You shouldn’t say anything [in the presence of a reporter] that you wouldn’t want to read in a newspaper or see on the tube,” writes David Snell in his book, How to Succeed in Media Interviews When Mike Wallace Comes Calling.

Principle 8: Never say “no comment.” Studies have shown that when executives are quoted as saying “no comment,” 38% of the public will believe the company is guilty. Instead, executives should briefly state that they cannot provide the information at this time and explain why. The executives might say that the company is still obtaining the facts, an ongoing investigation hasn’t been finalized or that they cannot comment about an ongoing legal situation.

Principle 9: Send written statements in response to reporters’ queries. Communications strategists should develop three- to four-paragraph statements that outline the facts and demonstrate that the company is properly addressing all current concerns. Statements also should explain the corporate philosophy and list some of the key actions a company is taking in response to a crisis, such as conducting investigations, reorganizing finances, developing agreements, etc.

Principle 10: Ensure communications strategists work closely with legal counsel. Until recently, crisis communications plans were led almost exclusively by lawyers, with little input from communications strategists. According to Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management in Kentucky, companies that did this may eventually have won in the court of law, “but in the court of public opinion, their vendors and customers left…because there was nothing put out that guaranteed the company was going to survive.”

This article was written by Patricia Thorp, president of Thorp & Company. She can be reached at pthorp@thorpco.com.