Since March 2020, we’ve experienced how a crisis—a pandemic, a natural disaster, a social justice movement—can significantly, and quickly, impact a business.
It’s not whether an organization faces a crisis. How it’s handled will have the biggest impact on reputation and key business relationships. Organizations prepared to handle crises are significantly more likely to successfully manage and mitigate risk, sustain trust and loyalty, and protect their brands.
Making crisis communication part of 2022 planning and strategy is critical. Effective planning, including an evaluation of a company’s crisis process, team, tools and resources, ensures organizations are prepared to respond in a timely, effective and responsible manner.
Organization and the Market
It’s important to understand the marketplace when planning your organization’s crisis response. The world has changed significantly in the last two years. People expect more from businesses. Employees and customers expect businesses to stand for something more than profits and to be transparent.
To earn trust and loyalty, organizations must know who they are and what they stand for—and act accordingly. A clear purpose and values establish a foundation to support crisis response.
For example, if human safety is a priority, a company’s language, and especially its actions, must reflect that. This will build and sustain trust inside and outside the organization.
Knowing and understanding audiences makes it easier for businesses to meet them where they are, especially in a crisis. Now is the time to manage and nurture those relationships, so when a crisis happens, leaders have already built the trust needed to protect the brand, sustain relationships and support business continuity. It also provides guidance for how best to communicate with those who matter most.
Companies must have business continuity and crisis communication plans established and regularly refreshed.
When designing a plan, begin by identifying key risks and high-potential crisis scenarios. Explore each situation to clearly define events or triggers that would activate an organizational crisis response. These may include recalls, natural disasters, workplace incidents or data breaches. Their severity will determine the correct level of response, and each situation should be assessed for its potential impact on the company.
Build a step-by-step plan to guide the team through the immediate response and long-term planning for crisis management communication. The plan should include a designated leader, third-party consultants as needed and a core, cross-functional team with responsibility for initial response and communication strategy.
The plan and team should align with the business’s continuity and compliance groups to ensure an integrated response strategy.
Preparation is Crucial
Preparation is crucial because a crisis moves in real time and waits for no company. The difficult reality is the team will never have all the information it needs or wants during a crisis. It must do its best to quickly assess the situation and choose an appropriate response strategy. This becomes easier when the communication plan includes:
• A dedicated team with clear roles and responsibilities for crisis management, response and communication;
• A complete internal and external stakeholder audit, including preferred communication channels;
• Designated, trained spokespeople and external resources (e.g., legal, PR);
• Template materials that can be easily customized and distributed using predetermined communication channels; and
• A monitoring and listening process to understand the issue and marketplace conversations.
Refresh the plan through regular drills. Stage crisis trainings to assess the plan’s effectiveness in various situations. This will ensure it remains current and the team is ready to effectively respond to an unexpected issue.
Consistent and Authentic
In some cases, a well-managed crisis response can generate a higher level of trust. It is important to listen to stakeholders to avoid a tone-deaf response. Sincerely understanding stakeholders, demonstrating empathy and addressing concerns shows you care. And caring is never wrong—unless it is insincere.
If a mistake led to a crisis, acknowledge it and explain how it will be corrected, including changes to ensure it doesn’t recur. One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is staying silent or hiding. This will immediately lead to suspicion and loss of trust.
Move quickly to frame the crisis and put it in perspective. Minimize speculation and confusion by helping people understand the issue and explaining how the company is moving forward. Engaging in a crisis is critical, even though it may feel uncomfortable.
Simple, Factual Messages
Keep the information you communicate simple and factual. Eliminate speculation, opinions or assumptions to ensure everyone trusts what is being shared. While business must continue during a crisis, it’s important to be thoughtful and sensitive about external brand marketing or messages that could be perceived as misguided or opportunistic.
For example, reviewing and/or pausing social media posts in the wake of a crisis will ensure a pre-planned message isn’t accidentally shared that could be seen as inappropriate or insensitive.
Consistent communication is important, especially if the crisis becomes sustained. Provide regular, proactive updates—even if there’s nothing new to share. In the absence of information, people will make assumptions based on misinformation or grounded in fear, which can quickly lead to larger issues.
Engage people in a variety of ways, using a multi-channel approach—online, offline and in person. Deploy feedback loops, such as text and phone hotlines and email addresses, that are consistently monitored and managed. Leaders need to know what internal and external audiences are thinking and feeling during a crisis to effectively guide the response.
- Ayme Zemke, APR, EVP, Beehive Strategic Communication