By Jessica Lyon
No one expects a meteor to fall from the sky and cause significant damage. While there is no way to anticipate a “meteor-like” crisis in business, there are ways to prepare and mitigate damage for when one hits.
The rapid-fire exchange in today’s communication landscape of email, podcasts, blogs, social networking websites and traditional communications means there is no time to waste in getting your message out before others do it for you. It is essential to create a Crisis Communications Plan in order to manage the strategy, messages, timing and distribution necessary to communicate effectively with employees, media, core constituencies, clients, customers and stakeholders. The focus of the crisis communications function is to facilitate the rapid de-escalation of the crisis through effective and timely communications methods.
A crisis, by definition, is an event, allegation or set of circumstances which threatens the integrity, reputation, or survival of an individual or organization. It challenges the public’s sense of safety, values or appropriateness.
It is the goal of this Crisis Communications Plan to establish guidelines to deal with a variety of situations, and to ensure that officials and communicators are familiar with these procedures and their roles in the event of a crisis. In the turmoil and emotional strain of a crisis, the communication plan will eliminate the need to make logistical decisions and allow the management team time to focus on decisions that are most critical.
A Tale of Two Glitches
In April of this year, BlackBerry subscribers in the Western Hemisphere had to go without their wireless email connectivity during a system failure at Research In Motion (RIM), the company that runs the service. The service was interrupted on a Tuesday night and restored by late Wednesday morning. The following month, XM Satellite Radio had a software glitch that lasted for two days, as customers received “no signal” messages and intermittent service.
Both companies endured their share of bad press and public criticism after a significant lag in response time. When they did decide to respond, their messages were technical and did not connect emotionally with the “pain” caused to their customers.
RIM’s co-Chief Executive Jim Balsillie rebuked the criticism for a delay in communication, stating that RIM didn’t want to release a statement until they pinpointed the cause. However, it is always crucial to communicate, even if it is as simple as acknowledging the inconvenience and pledging that the company is doing everything within its power to restore service.
The lessons here are: timing is crucial (a lesson XM could have learned from the previous month’s BlackBerry blunder); and, the message has merit.
Basic Principles of Effective Crisis Communications
- Designate a Single Spokesperson.
- Communicate Early and Frequently. In the first few hours after an incident or allegation arises, the business has an opportunity to shape the media coverage and develop credibility with the media and the public. Communicating early demonstrates that the business is dealing with the problem and has nothing to hide.
- Internal Communications are Key. It is essential to communicate to your internal audience as well; you don’t want them to learn of the crisis situation on the 6:00 news.
- Encourage the “Front Door” Approach. If you don’t provide information, the media will simply head for the back door and go to other sources. If this occurs, you will lose control of what reporters are saying about you.
- Get Ahead of the Curve. Anticipate every conceivable bad news incident or allegation that could happen. Prepare fact sheets, backgrounder and have template announcements ready to go to support your proactive media relations.
- Get All the Bad News Out at Once. Get the bad news out – build in context as you do. Be the accurate source of verifiable facts, whether the news is good or bad.
If nothing else, do not forget this cardinal rule during a crisis: Think like a customer. Remember people respond emotionally to crises, not logically. Keep your customers at the forefront. Address their needs in a language that is clear and in a tone that they can connect with. They need to know that they are your priority.
Jessica Lyon is Vice President of Co-Communications, Inc., a full-service Public Relations/Marketing firm.