Over the past few weeks, SEC has provided guidance on creating an effective crisis communications plan. We like to break down our crisis communication plans into three key elements. Thus far, we have covered the first two: the difference between an emergency and a crisis and the importance of how decisions made in the initial stages of a crisis can impact the outcome.

The third critical element in crisis communications is the audience. This would include determining who the key audiences you need to communicate are, deciding on what they need to know, when they need to know it, who will be doing the communicating, and how it will be communicated. These audiences can usually be broken into two groups: internal and external. Although it may not be accurate in every situation, an advisable general rule of thumb is to start with internal audiences before moving to external ones. Ongoing crises that could impact public safety, though, such as a severe weather event or an active violence situation, are some examples in which external communications may take precedence.

One of the most common mistakes organizations make in crisis communications is not including an audience group that should have been informed. This may not always be easy to determine, so it is essential to be deliberative when making those determinations. Excluding a key target audience often leads to anger, resentment, and mistrust and can result in a backlash that can exacerbate the crisis. You want to avoid receiving questions such as “why weren’t we informed earlier?” and “what are you trying to hide?”.

When dealing with both internal and external audiences, it is essential to remember some fundamental concepts of crisis communications:

  • Who is going to speak, through what medium will they be speaking, and when are they going to say it? The who in this scenario could be a Public Affairs Specialist, Chief of Police, or School Superintendent. The next step would be to determine in which format this person will be communicating, whether it is through a press release, press conference, or an in-person, telephone, or televised interview. SEC recommends, when possible, speaking through a written statement. Written statements can be reviewed and edited by others and limit the opportunity for immediate follow-up questions.

  • What do you want the message to be? The content of the message is obviously the most important component of crisis communications. SEC recommends settling on 3 or 4 key points that you want to get across to the audience. It is important to, as much as possible, not expand on or stray from these main points, as this is when you can lose control of the message. If you cannot communicate something at a specific time, provide an explanation as to why. There could be a number of reasons as to why you would not be able to communicate something, such as the crisis is in its early stages and the information about it is evolving, the desire not to impact an ongoing investigation, privacy laws, or organizational policies. Also, remember it ok to say you do not know something if you do not. This will prevent you from speculating or providing inaccurate information.

  • Set expectations about how you are going communicate in the future. Whether it is committing to providing additional updates at predetermined times or when more accurate information is available, it is important to set expectations as to when you will be communicating further. Your initial communication may not be satisfying to all your targeted audiences because they want as much information as soon as possible. Often times, though, this dissatisfaction is unreasonable. Much like a child who is upset that they cannot have something or do something exactly when they want it, your audiences may experience similar anger or frustration because they are not receiving everything they want when they want it. But like with the child, letting them know when they might receive it and under what conditions can often help to diminish the anger and frustration they may be experiencing.

  • Highlight what you are committed to doing. Talk about your core values and how you have demonstrated in the past and will continue to demonstrate now and in the future your commitment to upholding these values. Continue to reiterate what your organizational priorities are. For example, if you are a school leader whose school has experienced a safety or security issue, a statement such as “Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our students and staff” would be appropriate. Finally, clearly explain what you will be doing moving forward. Describe your commitment to being as transparent as possible about explaining what happened, why it happened, and what you will be doing to ensure that it does not happen again.

At SEC, we always emphasize trying to solve problems before they arise. You may not know when a crisis will occur, the exact nature of the crisis, or its impact, but there is a great deal you can do to be as well prepared as possible to mitigate its impact. As always, please feel free to reach out to us if we can be of assistance in fleshing out your crisis communication plan and please look for our additional posts on this topic as we will be providing additional guidance on crisis communication strategies.

The American actor, journalist, and humorist, Will Rogers, once famously said, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” Rogers understood that how individuals view others in the long term can be significantly impacted by how they initially perceive them. This truism can also be applied to crisis communications. During the initial stages of a crisis, what, how, and to whom you communicate can be incredibly consequential in determining how well or poorly you and your organization navigate a crisis. In order to attempt to achieve the best outcome, it is important to have a framework of a crisis communication strategy in place before a crisis arises.

When consulting with our clients about crisis communication, we often use the analogy of starting on a car trip, where you are not sure how long it will take or what your final destination will ultimately be. You may not immediately know how long the crisis is going to last or what its impact will ultimately be, but if you make smart choices early on and follow these rules of the road, you can increase your likelihood of safely reaching your destination:

  1. Plan for the worst – Just like for the car trip, it is wiser to have something in place, like a spare tire or jumper cables, and not need it than to need it and not have it. By preparing for worst case scenarios immediately, such as identifying all the external resources that could potentially be of assistance with your communications, such as law enforcement or legal representation, you will increase the likelihood of having those resources available to you when needed.
  2. Watch your speed – At the start of a crisis, information that is circulated is often incomplete or inaccurate. In certain circumstances, you and your organization may find yourself under pressure to communicate quickly due to the specific nature of the crisis. It is very important, though, not to let speed overtake accuracy. Disseminating incomplete or inaccurate information during the initial stages can make it much more challenging to restore the trust and confidence your audience previously had in you.
  3. Look for guard rails- When driving, guard rails are installed to protect you from going off road and hurting yourself and potentially others. When thinking about crisis communication, guard rails can help you avoid providing information that can cause further damage. During a crisis, it is important to have an understanding, prior to communicating, of what those guard rails are. Common guard rails include organizational policies, legal requirements, privacy compliance issues, and the need to not impact ongoing investigations.
  4. Take advantage of rest stops- During a long journey, rest stops can be an invaluable resource. They can be relied on to provide things, like food and fuel, that allow you to keep moving forward. In crisis communication, rest stops are the positive statements you can make to help mitigate the negative impact of the crisis early on. Strong statements about the things that are a priority to you, that you are committed to doing, that are an organizational core value, or that you have a strong history of doing successfully are all things that can help you buffer the negative elements of the crisis and allow you to continue to move forward. 

As we have mentioned in previous posts on this topic, crises can be especially difficult to plan for because many of the elements of each crisis can be unique and unanticipated. But that does not mean some effective planning cannot and should not occur. Developing some common-sense fundamental strategies and having a better sense of these “rules of the road” can greatly improve your initial crisis communication effectiveness.

When developing a crisis communication strategy, it is important to first understand the distinction between emergency and crisis. Although often used interchangeably in everyday discourse, they are not the same thing. A crisis is a time of intense difficulty or stress where tough and important decisions must be made. An emergency is a serious and often dangerous incident that typically threatens health, life, or property and requires immediate action. Although they can be cojoined, a crisis can occur without emanating from an emergency and vice versa. Because they are distinct, it is important to develop unique strategies for both emergencies and crises.

 

 

Emergencies are usually easier to plan for. Although we do not know when or even if they are going to occur, most individuals and organizations have identified a laundry list of potential emergencies they could be exposed to and developed comprehensive plans for response. Additionally, for many of these emergency scenarios, training and drills have been conducted to help ensure that these plans can be executed in an effective manner. Planning and drilling for a fire emergency is probably the most relatable example of this. In educational environments, everyone from the school principal or childcare director down to the youngest student has been trained on what to do. 

Crises are typically not as easy to plan for because each crisis can contain unique and unanticipated elements. Planning for the unknown, however, can still make a positive impact. You may not be able to anticipate the exact nature and details of a crisis before it arises, but you can put fundamental strategies in place to prepare your organization to be as well positioned as possible when it does. One way to test the health of your crisis communication strategies is to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you know who in your organization will most likely be responsible for crisis communications?
  2. Has that individual(s) received any communication training?
  3. Are you aware of all the resources available to you to assist with your response strategy?
    • Legal
    • Human Resources
    • Law Enforcement
    • School District/Corporate Leadership
  4. Do you have a preferred method of communicating with stakeholders and media?
    • Written
    • Verbal
    • In Person
    • Televised
  5. Do you have access to a library of previously delivered communications that have effectively helped to mitigate the impact of like situations?

At SEC, we always emphasize to our clients that they try to solve problems before they actually arise.  Although you may not know the exact nature or impact of a crisis before you experience it, there is a great deal you can do to be as well prepared as possible to mitigate its impact. As always, please feel free to reach out to us if we can be of assistance in fleshing out your crisis communication plan and please look for our additional posts on this topic as we will be providing additional guidance on crisis communication strategies.