Part of the definition of a crisis is that few people, if anyone, saw it coming. Crises are by nature unpredictable — but that doesn’t mean PR and communications professionals can’t be prepared when they hit.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many such professionals found themselves thrust into crisis communications as the public health risks and economic fallout continued. This may be outside your normal role or comfort zone, but there are best practices to follow to ensure you’re not caught flat-footed.
Expect the Unexpected
Good crisis communication begins before the crisis. Savvy organizations are prepared, as much as possible, for unforeseen events, and have a chain of command ready to take action when crises occur. PR and communications teams should meet regularly to draft and update crisis response plans, detailing who will be in charge of responding to the media and public. Loop in additional teams beyond just those in media or public relations to ensure the entire organization is aware that such plans exist. Make sure it’s clear who will take the communications lead, even on nights, weekends and holidays. When emotions are raw and stakes are high, a written crisis response plan is crucial.
Get on the Same Page
When a tense situation is ongoing, it’s imperative an entire organization responds with one voice. In the initial stages of a crisis, this might require instructing individuals not to engage with the media or the general public on the issue until a unified position or statement is in place. Boaz Amidor, a technology industry marketing expert, advises: “Stop and make sure no one on your team responds or comments on the matter: not off the record, not on the record, not on social media and not even via a third party.” Gather relevant stakeholders to make sure everyone understands the organization’s position before addressing the situation publicly.
Let the Facts Lead
In the wake of a disaster, accident or tragedy, it’s rare that all the facts are immediately available. But as David D. Perlmutter, dean of the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University, notes, “A slow response can itself become a hot-button issue.” Communications leads should address the known facts, but also acknowledge where more information is needed. Avoid making assumptions or outlining concrete plans before these unknowns are resolved. Be clear about what actions are immediate and what details aren’t yet known. Be honest about situations that are still ongoing; no one expects all the answers at once during an unfolding disaster.
Mind Your Language
Crises make the public anxious. They want to be reassured and hear clear, firm language, even if a particular organization or institution doesn’t have all the answers. Statements risk coming across as tone-deaf if they’re too cheery, or hollow if they’re full of jargon and platitudes. Phrases like “our hearts go out to the victims” and “the jury is still out” have become clichéd and smack of insincerity, notes James C. Garland, former president of Miami University in Ohio.
In the face of financial downturns or natural disasters, for instance, the public has very real concerns about health, safety, security and their livelihoods. Experts from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company say good leaders express empathy in their communications and acknowledge people’s fears and concerns. Effective communication during a crisis lets people know that their negative emotions are valid, and that an organization is doing what it can to help.
While all crises are unique, what they have in common is the need for clear and thoughtful communication. Even if crisis management isn’t within an employee’s particular job description, those in the communications field can still benefit from having these skills. Such employees may find that a Master of Professional Communication degree prepares them with the skills they need to confidently and strategically respond in those situations — and to advance in their career.