When your client or company has a crisis, the situation can be difficult to keep up with. Unlike many other public relations skills, crisis communications is difficult to teach—and as with most things, experience is invaluable. Still, you rarely get multiple chances to get right.
Here are seven tips for handling a crisis:
1. Get the facts.
To deal with a crisis, you must be fully briefed. If you suspect someone’s holding out on you, gently but firmly explain that whatever they don't tell you now, reporters will probably find out later. If you’re to deal with the situation then there's no time like the present to be brutally honest.
2. Sort your spokespeople.
This is Crisis Comms 101. The spokesperson should be senior, so stakeholders know you’re taking the situation seriously; they should be prepared to have their name associated with the crisis and the subsequent statements/interviews; and preferably (becomes “crucially” if there's a broadcast element) they should be media trained to answer tough questions in front of a camera.
Tip: ABC—answer, bridge, control—is the way to deal with tricky questions. Just listen to politicians to understand how this works: They answer with one word and then bridge to their actual message before delivering it again and again.
3. Coordinate your team.
How many people are on your team? Do they all know who should get the calls when journalists start ringing? Has every person in the company been informed that all calls should be directed to one person/department? Are they aware that a journalist might not identify himself or herself as a journalist?
Make sure they are, because some reporters don't care who gives them a quote. The people handling the calls should be well briefed and experienced.
4. Stay calm and composed.
Whoever’s handling the calls will probably get difficult, leading questions, which can easily lead to inadvertent, damaging quotes appearing in print if you're not careful. Get a statement ready, get it approved, and offer it to anyone who contacts you. Do not get into a conversation. Going “off the record” is a myth. You will
be quoted as a spokesperson.
5. Understand who your stakeholders are.
It's not just the media you should communicate with in a crisis. Make sure you're handling all your audiences, including staff and customers. Internal communication is as important as external in a crisis.
6. Stay consistent.
If you're working for a large organization, there'll be lots of people whom journalists will try to approach for a quote or background information. Staff should be briefed with your contact details when the journalists come knocking.
Every communication with journalists should be managed by no more than two people in your organization to ensure consistency of message.
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7. Have everything in place in advance.
All of the above should be part of a crisis communications plan that’s drafted and finalized long before it’s actually implemented. Trying to pull something together when you’ve got your boss in one ear asking what to do next and journalists in the other demanding a response as the crisis unfolds, is nearly impossible. Even if do you manage it, you will look unprepared and will run the risk of missing important details.
Luke Budka is an account director at TopLine Communications.