Whether it is a natural disaster, a terrorist attack or even just a controversial business move, unexpected crises can create a state of panic. That panic can lead to hasty decisions and, ultimately, communications missteps. What a company communicates to its publics can be just as important as what is done to handle the crisis. Here is what you can do as a public relations professional to prepare for and navigate through a crisis.
The quality of crisis communication is determined long before the crisis by how well communicators prepare. Making intelligent communications decisions is much easier when the shock and rush that accompany a crisis aren’t present.
On his crisis management website, Johnathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management explains, “If you haven’t prepared in advance, your reaction will be delayed by the time it takes your in-house staff or quickly hired consultants to prepare. Furthermore, a hastily created crisis communications strategy and team are never as efficient as those planned and rehearsed in advance.”
Fernando Vivanco, senior director of corporate communications at Medtronic, is well versed in preparing for and handling communications during a crisis. On October 13, he taught public relations students at Brigham Young University that in preparing for crisis communication, communicators must identify potential crises or issues, develop contingency plans and holding statements for each and regularly train on each scenario to be ready for a crisis.
“We have more than 40 different scenarios that we’ve mapped out. With that we already have holding statements and Q&A’s and sample templates. If and when those issues pop up we’ve already got 89 percent of the content we are going to need within the first few hours of any issue,” Vivanco says of the steps his team at Medtronic have taken to prepare.
Even the best communicators won’t be as effective in a crisis when they haven’t prepared for possible scenarios. Do what you can before a crisis occurs so that your efforts can be focused when the time arrives.
When lightning strikes
Once a crisis or issue rears its head, a quick and simple message is vital. Vivanco gives the example of an airplane manufacturer receiving news of one of the planes it manufactured crashing.
Although the manufacturer may not know any more information than the public, it may tweet a simple message stating that it knows about the crash and is awaiting further details. This shows the public that the manufacturer is involved and actively seeking to help in the crisis.
Although crises are immediate, it is important for a communicator to keep an eye on the long-term implications.
Vivanco explains, “When you have a crisis, you have to think of the different phases of a crisis. It’s easy to try to put out the fire that’s right in front of you, but there is going to be things that are going to be popping up all the time. There are a few different phases of a crisis.”
Different phases to consider when crafting a message are: the event itself, potential actions of government and regulatory agencies, law suits and anniversaries of the crisis. Throughout each phase, but especially at the onset of a crisis, the goal of communicating is to build confidence with your stakeholders.
Bernstein highlighted one important group of stakeholders that may impact the information that the general public receives – employees.
“I consider employees to be your most important audience because every employee is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organization whether you want them to be or not! But, ultimately, all stakeholders will be talking about you to others not on your contact list, so it’s up to you to ensure that they receive the messages you would like them to repeat elsewhere.”
Whatever the planned message, a wise communicator keeps messages simple and consistent throughout the crisis and across all audiences.
The more you know, the more you can do
Research is critical in crisis communications to not only gauge the success of a message, but to avoid unnecessary or unwise communications in the future.
“You are always going to hear a lot of anecdotal stories,” says Vivanco. “But having the data is more powerful than an anecdotal comment. Research can be very helpful in deciding what to say and what not to say so that you don’t accidentally end up creating more messes to clean up.”
The role of research has recently been highlighted in Vivanco’s work as Medtronic acquired Covidien, an Irish company. This acquisition became the largest corporate inversion (meaning the executive office is foreign, but the majority of operations occur in the United States) to date. Research helped Vivanco’s team handle the potential negative reactions of stakeholders.
“We had senior executives who were worried that we were going to lose business because our customers wouldn’t like this,” says Vivanco. “Well, by having some good data and being able to go to our executives and say, ‘Look, 98 percent of our customers don’t even know that we’re acquiring Covidien, we were able to craft our message to our customers.”
Additionally, Vivanco’s team took the pulse of all stakeholders from the day the acquisition was announced to the day it closed and beyond to monitor and change their messaging as needed.
Communication during and after a crisis can be helpful or hurtful, but without research, you will never know. Research can help you get the right message out and refine your future crisis management plans.
Effectively planning for and communicating in a crisis situation can be the difference between overcoming a crisis or creating a bigger one. Thorough planning and practice, implementing those plans quickly and efficiently and keeping an eye on the effects of your communication can make a crisis manageable.
Amanda Jacobsmeyer is a senior in the Public Relations program at Brigham Young University from Overton, Nevada. She is currently working as a teacher at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. She also works as a public relations specialist for The Allazo Group, an educational conglomerate. Amanda loves all things British, having “jam sessions” with her friends, and anything sugary. She is also an outspoken nerd and quotes movies in every conversation. Amanda is aspiring to work in the music industry as a public relations professional and event manager.