6 Tips for Message Clarity During a Crisis 

Getting the media and those they inform to understand the elements of a crisis and your response to that crisis right away is easier when one simple premise is applied: The audience is composed of total strangers. Once you understand that you’re talking to strangers—people who don’t have your background or knowledge and are considering the crisis for the first time—the vocabulary rules become obvious:

  1. Junk the Jargon: While attorneys and legal beat reporters know exactly what a “TRO” is, the rest of the world doesn’t. Use "temporary restraining order" instead, at least for the first usage. Better yet, define it in context:  “Our client does not believe that there is any need to restrain sales of their products temporarily or permanently.” 

  2. Ax the Acronyms: You may know what a NOFA is, but most folks don’t. "Notice Of Funds Availability" is a perfect example of insider vocabulary. Even in cases where the acronym is reasonably familiar–EPA, ACLU, SPCA–a segment of the audience doesn’t know or has forgotten what those shorthand versions mean. Acronyms can also lead to confusion, since similarly named entities are commonplace (California Environmental Protection Agency, Hartford SPCA, Illinois ACLU). Full definitions help the audience understand.

  3. Illuminate: Saying “...the First Amendment will be violated...” is less effective than saying “...the First Amendment right to freedom of assembly will be violated...” The first is ambiguous—free speech, free press or the right to petition? The second helps everyone understand the precise nature of the dispute.

  4. Fill in the Blanks: Don’t assume that strangers exposed to your statements share the same base of knowledge or that they know your position is wrong. Your clients may know to an absolute certainty that their actions were perfectly legitimate, but if you don’t say so, many will inevitably wonder why. Don’t leave room for anyone to fill in the blanks.

  5. Craft Carefully: A simple preposition can lead to significant misinformation. A “demonstration in Chicago” is not the same as a “demonstration through Chicago.” One stays put with modest disruption, and the other is a traffic snarling, logistically challenging parade. Since initial statements may well define the issues, there is a significant advantage to be gained; by writing and speaking with extraordinary precision, the crisis can be defined on your terms.

  6. Share and Share Alike: Before you release anything, make sure you have communicated with strangers effectively—share your communication with someone outside the communications team. Even under time pressure, take a moment to present your statement to a colleague who is not familiar with the crisis. Ask them to tell you what they read or heard. If the answer isn’t exactly the message you seek to communicate, fix it—spending weeks or months trying to correct misinformation or incorrect impressions is far more challenging than getting it right, right away.

David Hamlin is partner at Weisman Hamlin Public Relations in Los Angeles. He has worked on crisis campaigns for law firms, associations and nonprofits.

This article was adapted from PR News' Crisis Management Guidebook, Vol. 5. This and other guidebooks can be ordered at the PR News Press online store.