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.