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Teaming up for crisis communications

Glenda LeGendre Big

It’s four a.m. and two students are arrested. Someone drives a car into your building. One of your employees may have absconded with a client’s funds.

Any organization, at any time, may have to deal with negative communications experiences. Product failures, lawsuits, employee issues, violence, management changes, etc., are regular parts of the news day. Thanks to this era of social media and video streams, the crisis management process is more immediate than ever. And potentially more costly to the reputation and economic success of your organization. You need to quickly frame both the narrative and the optics. Your market brand is at stake.

So how do you prepare? Larger organizations generally should have a crisis communications team and leadership plan in place that is reviewed with some regularity. The plan should have the team assignments and contact numbers readily available. There should be an internal marketing/public relations lead, relevant operations people, and upper management participation. A decision whether to add legal support and an unbiased outside media adviser should be made quickly. A smaller organization needs to follow most of the same steps with just a few less people.

Getting the team together in a room quickly, or on one conference or Skype-like call is a great start. Gathering the facts of the matter and chronology of the events need to be reviewed or assigned. (Although as a team’s designated media person, I often just want to know just the main details and not get too far into the “weeds” of the situation.) All participants should be asked opinions at that time in order to consider diverse issues. Any privileged information needs to be confirmed and a basic statement prepared. Once the details are established, a decision needs to be made regarding who the official spokesperson should be. That person is identified as the only one who represents the organization externally on the matter.

A big decision

Choosing the spokesperson is a big decision. The CEO or COO may need to be held back for later use if the situation escalates. The identified individual should be calm, articulate, knowledgeable, and authentic. This may need to be an outside spokesperson or board member, but in general an internal manager is best.

Regarding the challenge of the message itself, the response can be an immediate statement or an initial briefing that can be later expanded once the facts are gathered. The message should carefully incorporate the culture or brand essence of the organization, be factual, apologetic and/or sympathetic as appropriate. Your narrative is strategically significant but needs to be developed quickly. Accompanying photos, charts such as a Q&A sheet or videos can be helpful. If you are somehow ahead of the media, you can call them yourself or use social media messaging.

Since incoming news media calls are more likely, someone should be assigned to answer the calls and take messages. The spokesperson needs to practice the response so it doesn’t sound canned or stiff. Although all media responses should be done quickly, a follow-up press conference can be organized if the issue merits it. However, I have occasionally arranged scheduled/timed call-ins for media who have interest in more detailed questions and additional quotes.

Internally, the spokesperson needs to make sure the organization’s own community is aware of the issue and receives a statement simultaneously with the media. Emails or text groups are usually the quickest route, and anything sent out through those approaches needs to be consistent with the external messages. If your company has a website, you should post your message on the home page. Consistency is key.

Stepping up as a prepared team with an authentic response to a crisis situation is the best way your organization can weather the situation.

 

Glenda LeGendre is principal of Strategic Marketing and Communications and can be reached at [email protected]


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