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How to Handle Communications in a Crisis

Christopher Hundley has worked in communications/PR for over 17 years and still loves it.

​A high-profile lawsuit, an accounting scandal, an instance of workplace violence, or one of many other developments can have a devastating impact on a business or nonprofit. The stress of reporters constantly calling you for comment about an incident of which you do not even have all the facts yet can be overwhelming and paralyzing. Depending on the nature of the scandal, there can be severe financial ramifications—ramifications that can worsen for as long as negative publicity engulfs the organization. It is critical that you plan for a variety of crisis scenarios and are as ready as you can be when one hits.

Before the Crisis

Get a crisis communications plan together

Too many organizations have nothing in writing that indicates who is on first in the event of a crisis. In the plan, differentiate between types of crisis. The crisis response team involved in addressing an incidence of workplace violence will likely be somewhat different than the team addressing a news story about a pending sexual harassment case against a board member. Make sure you have delineated different point people for different scenarios and that each person knows their role. Run drills periodically to make sure that staff are familiar with the protocols.

This should be done during the planning stage. There is always a balance to be struck between transparency and risk of liability. Your legal team may be more cautious than you want to be if have you tried to get ahead of the story. Know that before the crisis hits! Figure out what the line is in the most likely crisis scenarios so you have a good idea of what language is and is not off-limits. Otherwise, during a crisis, you will waste time arguing internally with legal about the most effective response from both a strategic and a tactical perspective. Use this planning process to explain to legal what to expect from your office during a crisis, especially if your legal team has not been through a public relations crisis before. They may not understand the importance of rapid response and treat your requests same as any other they receive. You can lose valuable time and control of the ability to influence the narrative in that time.

Hold periodic media training sessions with staff

Your staff will likely to be on the front lines of a crisis. The more familiar all staff are with what to expect, the less overwhelmed they are likely to be when a catastrophe occurs.

At the Onset of the Crisis

Gather the facts, reconfirm them, then reconfirm them again

Sure, the phone may be ringing off the hook, but your public statements must be accurate. Both the credibility of your organization, and your own professional credibility, are on the line. If you share a version of events with a reporter and have to call back with corrections five minutes after you hang up, and then call back a third time with new facts that contradict the first two versions, a reporter is going to question whether something is being covered up, whether you are the right person in your organization to be speaking to (or whether they should be directing their questions to your boss), or whether the dysfunction you are demonstrating is indicative of larger organizational dysfunction that may have contributed to the crisis and should be a part of the story.

Make sure they are vetting draft public statements as quickly as you can draft them, with an eye towards possible liability.

Keep leadership informed in real-time

Leadership should be given realistic projections of what to expect. The last thing you want is your CEO to panic and start reaching out to the press on their own without your knowledge. Or for them to lose confidence in you and start relying on counsel from others on how the crisis should be managed—others who may be knowledgeable about the specifics of the problem, but completely ignorant of media relations. Make sure your CEO not only knows what is going on but has a clear role laid out for him or her that is part of a well-thought out plan that if executed, will help the organization make it through the storm in the best possible condition.

Call your colleagues to coordinate work

Remember that everything you send via email is discoverable. I assume that you are not reading this to help you navigate your own involvement in illegal activity, but depending on the nature of the crisis, depending on how you phrase emails, you can wind up exacerbating the situation, especially if someone is leaking information. Rather than waste time second-guessing how an email might be perceived if leaked or released as part of a court record, pick up the phone when possible and call your colleagues to coordinate your response. Minimize editorial comments in any emails you must send.

Just the facts, ma'am

Social media accounts and public statements should avoid editorializing and focus on the facts. Note: framing the facts to drive a narrative is different than editorializing. It is one thing to blast out on Twitter, "XYZ organization is totally not at fault here," and quite another to release a statement to the effect of:

"While an internal review by our Accounting department, and an external review from an independent auditor found that some internal accounting controls had not been followed, both reviews showed no evidence of intentional wrongdoing or financial malfeasance on the part of any XYZ organization staff member. Moreover, XYX organization was in full compliance with all relevant State and local regulations and laws. Nevertheless, XYZ organization has already begun a refresher training program for fiscal staff designed to ensure strict adherence to internal accounting controls and all State and local regulations and laws."

Make sure you let all your staff, especially your front-line folks know the message and are empowered to communicate it. It means little if you are sharing the reasons for a service interruption with reporters, if your customer service representatives do not know those reasons and / or are not authorized to share those reasons with the very angry customers with whom they are speaking. "Angry customers and poor customer service" becomes an angle, one that is avoidable if you make sure everyone is marching to the same sheet of music from the get-go. Also, ​make sure as you distribute your message you are keeping all your social media channels up-to-date. ​

Practice message discipline

This not only means making sure your front-line staff have the message, but that all your staff and leadership know to, and how to, hold to that message no matter how tempting it may be to go off message or how much a reporter may beat you into doing so.

Always keep your message first in your mind. Make sure that no matter what question is asked, your answer takes the reporter and/or the public back to your message. I have found it helpful for me to write down what I plan to say to a reporter on the phone and keep it front of me for reference. I do not usually read it word for word but it helps keep me focused on the core narrative.

For the rest of the organization, media prep is essential. Hopefully you are regularly engaging at least your senior leadership team in ongoing media training beforehand, and so prepping leaders for a specific situation can run smoothly. If not and your leadership team is new to public relations crises, make sure you frontload your prep with a thorough grounding in message discipline, handling press inquiries, managing expectations of coverage, and other fundamentals before diving in to the strategy and tactics needed to deal with the situation at hand.

Do not get into a back-and-forth about a narrative, especially when your message is a complex one

Keep your message simple, straightforward, and relatable. Avoid jargon wherever possible. Emphasize the impact of your message on people, when possible. If others, particularly non-media actors (such as grassroots organizations, elected officials, and public figures), try to hem you up publicly on details, address the details only insomuch as you need to do so to pivot back to your message.

Do not flat out ignore reporter phone calls

This should be obvious, but it happens often, usually because either the public relations team is overwhelmed, or has taken an adversarial approach to the media to address the crisis. In either instance, stonewalling reporters is not helpful. It only creates the impression that you have something to hide. Reporters will understand if you share with them the truth:​ that you are still gathering facts, ​or that it is taking longer than expected to get an official statement approved, ​or if (shared off-record) there are elements to the issue that, if made public at that point, could materially hurt people. This is not to say that you will get the outcome you want, but it is far better to engage the media than to ignore them, if you hope for either favorable coverage, or at least fair and unbiased coverage.

Pull together surrogates

Find third-parties who can carry your narrative, and empower them to speak on your behalf. Make sure you prep them with all the necessary background and talking points beforehand, lest they inadvertently go off message.

Debrief soon after the immediate crisis has passed

Analyze what went right and what went wrong. Assess the media coverage you received, and how effective your message was conveyed in each outlet. Did you succeed in driving your chosen narrative, or did your message get diluted by counter-narratives? Do not just hold a meeting; draft a written assessment to which you can refer when future troubles appear on the horizon. Update your crisis communications plan if necessary if its execution did not yield the desired results.

Ensure that the crisis has actually passed

Do what you can to make sure that the root problem that led to the negative press has been addressed, and that staff and/or leadership is not simply papering over the problem. Your professional credibility is at risk if you have just assured the public that the problem has been resolved. Depending on the nature of the problem, your employment and freedom could be at risk as well.

M​ake sure to thank the reporters who provided favorable or fair coverage

They may do follow up stories and you want to make sure to keep the lines of communication open in case ​they are calling you again for comment in a week or two. ​Even if they do not, it is good practice just to maintain good relationships with the press.

What are your best tips for handling a crisis?

© 2019 Christopher Hundley