4 Rules for Effective Communication in a Crisis

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The recent data breach at British Airways and the airline’s widely praised response provides a timely reminder of the importance of effective crisis management from a public relations point of view, particularly with your communication in a crisis.

Using the BA situation as a springboard, in today’s post I’ll share my 4 Tips for Effective Crisis Communication.

 

 

A TALE OF TWO AIRLINES

Do you remember last year when that passenger was dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight, causing a media and social media firestorm? Many observers thought the airline’s public response only made things worse. CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial response was criticized as “callous,” “dismissive,” and a “major disappointment.”

The incident and the company’s response earned a wave of negative publicity. It was thought to have been particularly damaging to the company’s reputation in China, an important and growing market for the airline.

(Ironically, one month before the incident, PR Week magazine named Munoz Communicator of the Year. Nobody said this was easy!)

British Airways took a very different response to its recent communication in a crisis.

A couple of weeks ago, the airline discovered that between August 21 and September 5, hackers had stolen the names, addresses, and credit card data—including expiration dates and security codes—from 380,000 customers who had booked flights on BA’s app and website.

The company will face significant financial penalties because of the breach, including a likely fine under Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulations.

 

 

However, the way British Airways admitted and responded to the crisis drew strong praise.

In assessing the airline’s response to the crisis, PR Week magazine wrote, “In this particular case, BA has risen to the challenge and should be commended for a strong – textbook, even – crisis PR response.”

PR Week praised the actions of BA CEO Alex Cruz and said that the company had done three things right in its response to the crisis:

  • It communicated quickly and clearly with the people who were directly affected.
  • It mounted a robust external communications response, in which “the right actors have played the right roles and the script has been on point,” according to PR Week.
  • It provided “clear and unambiguous messaging that directly addresses the pressing emotions and concerns of affected customers,” in PR Week’s words.

I think the magazine’s analysis is right on the money. I also think it shows a clear grasp by BA of the essentials of effective crisis communications.

 

MY 4 RULES FOR EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION IN A CRISIS

I have had a front-row seat to much corporate communication in a crisis over the years. During that time, I have observed four rules that are especially important in containing the damage. You’ll notice a lot of overlap between my tips and what BA did in managing its comminication in a crisis.

Here are my 4 Rules for Effective Crisis Communications:

Rule # 1: Always tell the truth.

There have been numerous case studies demonstrating the power of truth. When companies own up to their mistakes and take action to prevent the same mistakes from happening again in the future, they invariably come out on top. It can be hard to own up to difficult truths, but the organization is stronger as a result.

Rule #2: Keep it simple.

Telling the truth does not mean telling every last detail you know. Remember that short, simple communications are better than long, overly revealing communications.

Rule #3: Speak through a single voice.

Appoint a single spokesperson to be the face and voice of the company with the media. This person should be someone who is well trained in public and media relations and specifically in crisis communications. Having a single person as the point of contact for the media will ensure a consistent message gets out to all channels. Your company may have multiple communication teams working internally to address different needs, like employees and customers, but you should have only one corporate spokesperson during a crisis.

Rule #4: Follow the 5 W’s.

The media gets very hungry during a crisis involving a prominent organization, or one which affects many people in the community. What they want is a very specific kind of information: namely the who, when, what, where, and why of the event, as well as the how. They want to know who was involved, where did the event happen, what happened, where did it happen, why did it happen, and how it happened. If you tailor your communications to providing this information, you’ll help the media do their job quickly and efficiently. This pays dividends by reducing overwrought speculation and earning more even-handed coverage.

 

STUFF HAPPENS

As it says on the bumper sticker, “Stuff happens.” (I’m not sure I have the wording exactly right.)

Despite our best efforts, sometimes bad things happen to good companies.

In those times, we can make things worse by responding in a secretive, chaotic manner, or we can contain the damage through an intelligent, honest, and disciplined response as set forth in the four rules given above.

 

FURTHER READING

For more information on crisis management, including communication in a crisis and other hot topics in business continuity management, check out these recent posts on BCMMETRICS and MHA Consulting:

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