Unfortunately, a crisis is something that can happen to any business. Sometimes it’s insignificant and doesn’t attract media attention, but that’s not to say that more serious crises do not develop frequently.
A crisis can take the form of a prominent employee scandal, a natural disaster, or even just a vicious rumour that catches the attention of the media. You can’t always avoid getting into hot water; the best thing you can do is prepare for possible consequences and eliminate sources of issues. For example, a CEO can create a dedicated team – a group of employees who constantly work on preventing dramatic events by planning out the different outcomes and their response situations.
Whatever the crisis, an official issued statement is something they all have in common. Stakeholders will be waiting for an explanation and some kind of update on the situation, and that’s where a holding statement distributed to stakeholders comes into action.
Remember the following tips in case the unthinkable happens to you…
1. Use key messages, verified information and don’t get defensive
The primary purpose of communications during a crisis is to inform about the 5Ws: “who, what, when, where, and why.” Use the 5Ws to guide the structure of your comms.
Sure, in many cases information is limited – that’s why you need to promise the audience that more information will be released as soon as you have it. Don’t make defensive remarks, as they can seriously ruin the credibility of your business, as can speaking prematurely before you know the full picture.
2. Define and isolate the actual problem
No one expects a disaster, so when it strikes it’s very easy to become overwhelmed and distracted. As a result, you might miss important information related to the actual issue or problem at hand. For example, if a company is facing an employee scandal, you need to investigate and identify whether it was caused by an inappropriate organisational policy, sexual harassment, human error, or something else.
At this point, you might also consider consulting with a legal professional who can identify potential implications of certain phrasing or words.
Here’s an example of a problem:
I want to inform you about an accident that occurred yesterday that affected all employees of the marketing department. An inappropriate conduct of one of the marketing analysts undermined the safety of the staff, which is the first concern of the organisation. We take all accidents of this nature very seriously…
3. Produce at least three key messages
Key messages will become the basis of the statement. Say you have limited details on an accident, you can build your communication around the facts:
This afternoon, federal regulators have sent me an official statement notifying that the vice president of our company is suspected of insider trading.
This key message clearly shows that you weren’t notified in person, so you cannot possibly know all facts related to the event. All questions thus should be redirected to the federal regulatory body that initiated the investigation.
One key message, however, is not enough even when you don’t know everything. So, to add the message above, the following could be used:
Our company agrees to cooperate with the official investigation to provide all necessary information that could reveal the truth.
The third key message could be:
To ensure that the vice president cannot access any sensitive information related to the company, it was decided to restrict his access privileges as soon as possible.
4. Present negatives in a broad context
This technique is often used by businesses to minimise the impact of the bad news. It can be used to describe an accident that did not have a profound impact on the organisation. For example, if an employee of a writing company that provides essay tips insulted a customer in some way, you can write that the company was able to deliver thousands of other people with good experiences.
You can also try to isolate the event by stating that it is very rare for your customers to experience problems while dealing with the customer service.
Words to use include in your crisis statement are: “isolated event” and “very rare.” Negative words to avoid are “another issue” and “frequent mistakes.”
5. Express empathy and take action
It’s not wise to create a gap between the company and the public or employees by using negativity. A better idea is to express empathy and eliminate that gap, via a spokesperson.
The empathetic writing includes words like “we appreciate,” “we understand,” and “we acknowledge.” A word of caution: don’t try to use “many people face similar issues” and “accidents like this happen.” If you want to emphasise that the organisation is addressing the problem, do it! If an employee is suspected of setting fire in a warehouse that belongs to the organisation, for example, don’t just state this fact but also inform that you are already working closely with local authorities to find out what happened.
Don’t jump to conclusions and admit that the organisation will be conducting an investigation to determine the involvement of the employee. Words like these attract journalists in need of fresh news. It’s better to admit that your organisation is doing everything to resolve the concern and minimise the damage to the building.
Phrases to use in the statement include “taking appropriate measures,” “taking immediate action,” and “working closely with the authorities.”
6. Be honest
The last tip in this article is perhaps the most important one. Honesty is the best policy because it helps to avoid phrases that damage credibility and reputation. If your organisation is to blame for an accident, then admit it in the statement. Many people will immediately recognise lies if they see them there.
Also, never try to hide any information. If you do, this could be bad news for your organisation. If they find you you’ve been lying, get ready for some serious criticism. So, if you are at fault, admit it without blaming anyone else and say that your organisation is committed to being open and transparent.
Where to from here?
Want more information on facing a PR challenge while you're in the midst of it? For the past 20 years, John Pushkin has been solving PR challenges of every kind, with a special emphasis on the very worst kind—brand crisis.
His firm, Pushkin PR is based in Denver, and we asked him to share his experience with crisis communications and the careful, strategic approach he's known for in getting brands back from the brink. Read his advice. For a complete guide on crisis management, using the data-driven insight every PR professional should have at their disposal, read our ebook on managing—or better yet, preventing—crisis.
Go on Record — For Now and for Later
Cheyenne Frontier Days (CFD) is the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration, so it is frequently the target of social media campaigns from anti-rodeo groups that accuse the event of animal abuse. Groups will contact local media demanding that CFD respond to their claims. Like many rodeos, CFD’s first instinct has been to refuse to respond. Why bother to argue with people who already mistrust you?
My firm, Pushkin PR, uses media intelligence dashboards to monitor social channels and alert our clients when a response is warranted. Having an awareness of the negative chatter allowed us to help CFD draft responses to media questions and develop content illuminating all the animal care steps they take to prevent and treat injuries. Now, instead of getting a one-sided story, anyone interested in the issue heard CFD’s point of view. https://www.pushkinpr.com/our-work/case-studies/cheyenne-frontier-days-cfd
Know When to Step In
Cheyenne Animal Shelter faced an onslaught of online criticism from local residents after an unfortunate situation that started when a stray dog was dropped off. As with most municipal animal shelters, unclaimed animals are put up for adoption if no one claims them after a certain period of time. A few days after this dog was adopted, it attacked and killed some livestock, and state law requires animals that attack people or livestock be euthanized. Friends of the original owner began an online petition and a flurry of social media posts claiming that there was no proof the dog had killed livestock and accused the shelter of preventing the original owner from reclaiming the dog.
The Shelter posted a statement on its Facebook page detailing exactly what happened, and we continued to monitor for negative posts using Meltwater. Choosing to not respond but keeping a close eye on chatter was an effective strategy until a local radio station posted a news story on its website that included misleading statements it had gathered from social media: http://kgab.com/cheyenne-animal-shelter-defends-decision-to-euthanize-dog/
Now we were faced with a situation where a media outlet posted a news story, including unverified claims they obtained from random social media posts. At this point, we determined that a response was necessary to protect the organization’s reputation and ensure accurate information was available, so we sent a statement to the station’s news director responding to the false claims.
So, How Do You Know When to Respond and When to Not To?
So how do you know if and when you should respond? Answering these questions is a good start.
- Has there been damage to your organization’s reputation? As Warren Buffet famously pointed out, it takes 20 years to build a reputation but five minutes to ruin it. It can also take years to repair a damaged reputation once it’s been tarnished. So if there’s been damage to your reputation, most crisis communications pros would counsel you to respond quickly, decisively, and transparently.
- Would a reasonable person expect a responsible organization to respond? In most crisis communications situations, the answer to that question is obviously, yes. So the question then becomes not should we respond, but how should we respond?
- Is public opinion about you being shaped by inaccurate statements or slanderous claims? If the answer is yes, it could be time to address that negative sentiment by clearly stating the facts.
Ultimately, the only way to know if you should respond or not is to listen. There are plenty of social media monitoring tools available to help you do this. Pushkin PR uses Meltwater to continually monitor social media chatter for our crisis communications clients. We are able to get daily reports and real time alerts when we need them, which allows us to instantly notify a client about anything that may require a response.
While we don’t recommend getting into online shouting matches, we do believe that it is always important for any organization to protect its brand reputation. Don’t let five minutes ruin what it took 20 years to build, and don’t let it take years to repair the damage to your brand once it happens. Knowing whether to respond or not is not always simple. But the answer will become much clearer if your first step is to listen.
Want to learn how Meltwater can help your company with crisis communications? Fill out the form and we'll get in touch.