By Anna Marie White, an instructor in our Public Relations Program
When a public crisis hits your organization, your role as a public relations leader moves from essential to vital. Whether an employee has committed a crime, your product or service has caused human tragedy or you are being unfairly attacked by detractors, you will need to be ready to not just respond but show pro-active leadership.
A public crisis places tremendous pressure on nearly all internal structures of an organization. Being prepared with some key guiding principles in hand will empower you to show leadership exactly when it is most crucial, but also the most dangerous.
A Chinese proverb puts it this way: A crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind. You have a chance to show your value to the organization, but you must be ready to navigate the risks. Making a PR mistake when the media eyes are already attuned to you can expend costly reputational capital that may take years to rebuild. Similarly, navigating the experience with savvy preparedness can turn what starts as a crisis into not just an issue to be managed but an opportunity to be leveraged.
Here are seven rules to keep in mind when communicating in a crisis:
1. Know your goals with your most important audiences.
Who needs to know what and when? Make sure those most directly affected are treated with respect and know they are important to you.
2. Prioritize your key messages.
Own your part and own it fast—conversely, don’t own what you don’t own. What are you doing to make things right? What will change as a result of this crisis?
3. Look for the opportunity within the crisis.
Is there space for your organization to become an advocate for change as a result of a tragedy? If so, can you come out swinging in favour of a positive change that would help makes things right?
4. Be aware of privacy, confidentiality and legal implications.
What legal obligations might a well-intentioned but hasty apology bind you to? Do you have the legal right to speak about individuals who may be involved? Might what you disclose be defamatory? Are you betraying either employee or customer confidentiality to do so? Often protecting the privacy of an individual connected to a crisis is a bona fide reason to restrain your organization’s comment so avail of the opportunity when you can.
5. Showing is always more powerful than telling.
The timing, technique and tone of your communication shows your stakeholders how much you care. Think about how different channels - e.g. in person or live vs. a social media post - change how the message is perceived. You can try to tell people you care in a 140 character social media post but it isn’t likely to be enough to show them that you really do.
6. Anticipate the landing from all angles.
How will those most affected by the crisis likely feel about your response? Who will be happy? And who will want more? Rigorously apply your critical thinking abilities to practice perspective-taking with anyone and everyone who might consider themselves a stakeholder in your crisis. Be imaginative and try to imagine all 14,000,605 outcomes.
7. Remember empathy, empathy, empathy.
Sound like a real human being so real human beings will connect with you. Corporate speak is dead entirely (not just in a crisis). Keep it real and avoid sounding “officious”.
About the Author
Anna Marie White is a consultant in corporate communications and project management in private and non-profit sectors. Anna Marie has a Bachelor of Arts and a Certificate in Public Administration at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She holds graduate qualifications from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. She also completed an MA in Corporate Communications from Bournemouth University in the UK where she graduated with distinction and received a commendation for top performance in her class.
- Posted May 27, 2019