Thriving in the Hot Seat: Crisis Communication Do’s and Don’ts

Some jobs get easier as time goes by and some get harder. An example of the second type is that of handling media communications for a company undergoing a crisis, which has gotten insanely difficult over the past several years. In today’s post, I’m going to help you thrive in the hot seat of crisis communication by sharing my crisis communication do’s and don’ts.

Many factors have contributed to making the job of crisis communications much harder than it was in years past. People nowadays are quicker to find fault and the Internet has given everyone a platform to air their complaints.

Meanwhile, the news cycle has gone into permanent overdrive and the old technique of giving information out in patronizing dribs and drabs will no longer fly. People today want and expect honest, transparent communications from the organizations they depend on or do business with.

All of these changes have made providing information to the media and public about an unfolding crisis one of the hardest jobs around.

However, based on my extensive experience as a crisis observer, there are certain things an organization can do that will tend to help in getting its message across and certain things that will definitely hurt.

Crisis Communications Do’s and Don’ts

The following are my crisis communication do’s and don’ts:

  • Do have a plan. The savvy company prepares a detailed crisis communication plan. For some input on what should be in it, keep reading.
  • Don’t just wing it. Most crisis communications types I’ve known are extremely confident. You have to be to do the job. However, too often when these folks attempt to improvise their responses during an event, going out in front of the media and shooting from the hip, two other parts of the body also come into play: the foot and the mouth.
  • Do write advance scripts for likely crisis events. I can’t emphasize this enough; it can make all the difference in the swiftness and coherence of your response in the first minutes and hours of an event. Every organization should think about the three to five crises that are most likely to strike (given their physical location, line of business, and so on), and write out in advance scripts of what they would say to the media or post on the internet if that event were to occur. Then get the scripts vetted and approved ahead of time.
  • Don’t be rigid in adhering to your scripts. The scripts are a guideline. They need to be tailored to the specifics of the case. Also, the scripts aren’t meant to take you through the whole event. As the event unfolds, it will take you beyond the script, requiring you to carry on without your training wheels.
  • Do provide regular status updates. As a crisis event unfolds, you should provide regular, consistent status updates across all media.
  • Don’t let just anyone do the talking. If you do, you might end up with a spokesperson like one I saw on the news once when there was a fire at a local-government office building. A TV reporter asked a random city employee who worked in the building about the fire. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk to the media, let me help you find someone who can,” the employee said, “Oh, my God! No one knew what was happening! There were no fire-safety procedures! It was total chaos!”
  • Do have a crisis communications policy. Such a policy should outline what employees can and can’t say and post when an event occurs. It should also spell out the consequences for not following the rules.
  • Don’t forget about the Internet. If the event impacts your customers, expect some of them to get online and seek redress or lodge complaints. Be prepared to communicate with them in real time.
  • Do be transparent and forthcoming. These days, stonewalling is a recipe for media disaster. No one will be happy about being treated like a baby when it comes to explanations. Your stakeholders and the media will want and expect honest, substantive information about the crisis. You should do your best to provide it to them.
  • Don’t let it all hang out. The preceding “do” should be balanced by this important “don’t”: Being transparent doesn’t mean sharing every last embarrassing detail. People who are socially adept know how to be open but maintain a zone of privacy. Crisis communication requires the same skill. Be honest but discreet, open but tactful.
  • Do set up a streamlined review and approval process in advance. In the heat of a crisis, you don’t want to be scrambling to work out who needs to review and sign off on your communications and/or how you can get in touch with those people. This whole process should be worked out ahead of time, with an emphasis on swiftness.
  • Don’t base your crisis communications effort on what you hope will happen. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
  • Do crib from companies that do crisis communication well. It’s a staple of the news: Organizations are always facing crises, and corporate spokespeople are always making on-air statements—or providing quotes to the print media—to explain or describe their response to those crises. Often those responses sound shifty, weak, or dismissive. But some organizations seem to know just what to say. Their responses are authoritative, calm, and nondefensive. They show energy, forthrightness, and high morale. Such statements help viewers maintain perspective and inspire trust. That’s what you want your crisis communications to do. So why reinvent the wheel? Collect responses that you think are strong and incorporate their language in your own scripts and responses.
  • Don’t expect to please everyone. The job of being the communications point person during a company crisis is hard enough without attempting to do the impossible.

These are my top suggestions on what organizations should and shouldn’t do if they want to make sure the way they talk about an unfolding crisis to the media doesn’t make a bad situation worse.

A Challenge But Not a Mystery

Crisis communication has gotten more challenging than ever, but it’s not a mystery. Experience has shown what works and what doesn’t in today’s environment when it comes to communicating with the press and public about an unfolding crisis. By following the do’s laid out above—and avoiding the don’ts—you can ensure that you thrive in the hot seat, and that your company doesn’t make its business crisis worse by precipitating a media crisis.

Further Reading

For more information on crisis communication and other hot topics in BCM and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from BCMMETRICS and MHA Consulting:

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