PR Insider: The First 48 of Crisis Communication

Ronn Torossian

When an organization has a crisis, the same rules of communication apply as in ordinary times, but the response must be well rehearsed and deliberate. The first 48 hours of a crisis are the most important because they determine whether the situation becomes a manageable problem or an out-of-control disaster. It's not possible to bide your time when a crisis happens; ignoring the event and burying your head in the sand will inevitably result in the situation turning into an unmitigated disaster. Because the first two days following a crisis are the most critical, preparation is a key factor to ensure the situation is dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Understand the Problem and Respond Immediately

There are many steps involved in preparing to deal with an image setback, and if you wait until your customers, stakeholders and other interested parties are already talking about it, you will find yourself scrambling to react to their demands instead of calmly managing their perceptions.

The first step to dealing with a crisis is to hold a meeting between all the decision-makers in the organization to assess the damage that has already been done, the steps that need to be taken to deal with it and the messages that need to be conveyed to everyone affected by the situation. There will be different messages for different groups of people, such as stakeholders, customers and employees.

The message sent to your employees is the next item you must consider as it is they who will be responsible for communicating with the various operating channels on which your organization relies. While meeting with the executives in your company, you must cover the specific details of the problem. No matter how unpleasant this information may be, you need to know exactly what happened, why it happened, what it implies and how it could have been avoided.

This step usually requires some investigation as all the details aren't always immediately apparent. One of the worst complications that can develop after a crisis occurs is that new damaging details emerge while you're dealing with the original problem. If your official position and message conflict with these emerging details, you may do irreparable harm to your brand and your relationship with the affected parties. 

Learn All the Unpleasant Details

While investigating the situation, you need to make use of all your internal connections within the organization. As the story becomes clear, you'll be able to effectively craft a message to deal with the fallout. At this point, the importance of being ready for a crisis can't be overstated. You need to process this information as quickly as possible and send your message to the appropriate people before they start doubting your leadership, honesty or competence.

If you already have a team in place to deal with problems as soon as they arise, you can successfully deal with just about any catastrophe. However, if you have to assemble a team and begin deciding on a message and a course of action after the issue crops up, you're much more likely to be delayed in responding to criticism. The longer you delay, the more the problem is compounded, but if you're ready for any situation when it arises, you will look competent and instill confidence in the people looking to you for answers. 

Choose Your Method of Communication

The next step is to decide which communication you’ll use to deliver your message to customers, members of the media and the public. You have several choices when it comes to communication channels, and each presents its own set of benefits and drawbacks. If you feel very confident about dealing with the problem, you should communicate your message via social media outlets, such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. These platforms give you a chance to field questions and respond to people with an interest in resolving the problem. It can lead to a faster resolution in terms of keeping your brand in good shape, and it allows you to quickly relieve any immediate concerns your customers may have.

It does present some drawbacks, however, and if you aren't 100 percent sure that you can deal with the crisis without making it worse, you may want to use a different method of communication. With social media, your message is much harder to control because anyone can contribute to the discussion and potentially compound the problem you're trying to solve.

A more straightforward way to convey your message is with a press release, blog article or news story. This type of one-way communication works well when you can't afford to discuss some details of the situation. It may make you look disingenuous to dodge questions in this way, but the alternative is to potentially set off a debate that could be based on inaccurate information.

Once this type of discussion becomes established in the public discourse, it's permanently associated with your brand, and you will have to make a concerted effort to erase the damage it may cause. As you get closer to understanding the causes and effects of the situation, you can gradually incorporate a two-way discussion into your communication strategy. By bringing members of the public into the dialogue, you begin to rebuild trust with your customers and potential customers.

Stay On Top of the Situation

Once the proper lines of communication are in place, you have to do maintenance work to make sure that your message is doing its job and that the problem isn't getting any worse. Ideally, your message should be conveyed to the relevant people within 24 to 48 hours of a problem arising, and you should be checking on the progress of your communication strategy within 48 to 72 hours. If you have an effective crisis management team in place to handle any problem that may come up, you will be able to deal with just about any problem.

To Learn more about communication strategies during a crisis, join PR News for the Crisis Management Workshop, taking place on March 12 in Washington, DC.

Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5WPR, a leading Crisis Communications firm, and founder of the Ronn Torossian Foundation.

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