This month’s question stems from a scenario we heard about recently. A crisis communicator entered a potential crisis situation. The crisis pro didn’t know the company. He discovered it lacked a crisis communication plan. In addition, it did not have PR pros or media relations personnel on staff.
The respondent this month is Myra Oppel, APR, partner, Copperfield Advisory, who teaches crisis communication in the School of Professional Studies’ Strategic Communication master’s program at Columbia University. Her response was edited for space and clarity.
Question: You’re called in for a crisis. The company lacks a crisis plan, PR or media relations pros. You’re starting from nothing. What do you do?
Myra Oppel: I’m going straight to the top [to gather facts]. If it’s a small company, the person in charge should have the most information and be able to reach other executives if he or she doesn’t have what I need.
Step back for a moment. Make sure you define the problem [or the crisis] before you devise a response.
As such, I need to know the who, what, when, where, why and how. What happened, who is affected, how did it occur and what safeguards were in place, or not.
In any crisis, especially at the beginning, you will not have all the information or the facts. But what’s important is that you know what you need to find out.
Since I’m walking in cold, and don’t know anything about the organization, I’ll need a team to get me up to speed quickly on the public footprint of the organization, including partnerships it has that we might be able to leverage and [the organization’s] reputation with the public.
I’ll also need to find out who the stakeholders are and what they thought of the organization before the crisis, and what they think now.
Media and External Relations
[Externally], I would touch base with each reporter who reached out. I want to acknowledge their inquiry and share appropriate and confirmed details and make sure they know how to reach the communication liaison, 24/7.
I’d also let them know we are gathering information, but might mention the kinds of details we’re seeking
For example, ‘We know that an explosion occurred at our plant and caused a number of casualties. We’re working with emergency responders to determine how many casualties occurred and to ensure that other employees are safe. We can’t speculate on a cause until the investigation is complete.’
If the authorities are involved, such as law enforcement or regulators, be sure to coordinate who will release what information. For example, you wouldn’t want to provide victims’ names until families are notified. Similarly, to avoid violating health confidentiality, do not mention victims’ conditions. It’s also important to remember to share only confirmed information—never speculate about anything.
Monitor media and social media so you know what the conversations are around this situation or crisis.
For many organizations, the initial inclination is to withdraw, to not say anything externally. That’s a huge mistake. If you don’t speak, eventually someone will. It’s likely they’ll fill the void [with things you don’t want mentioned]. Then you’ll be starting from behind.
So, it’s best to say what you know, even if it’s not the full picture. It will help you try to shape the narrative. It’s easier to shape, than to reshape, a narrative.