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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.