4 ways to prepare for a crisis—and respond where it counts

Controlling the narrative often isn’t possible in the free-for-all of social media. From educating leaders to responding in the right medium, a Florida International University expert offers tips.

crisis response tips

“Control the narrative” is advice often heard in PR circles when the conversation turns to crisis communication.

It’s also a trope that sets unrealistic expectations for PR professionals and executives worrying about reputational brushfires, cautions a Florida International University program director and longtime communications executive.

“Recognize that when you’re in the midst of crisis, especially as you factor in the issues associated with social media and social media platforms, we cannot necessarily control the message,” says Aileen Izquierdo, interim communications department chair, and graduate director of FIU’s Global Strategic Communications master’s degree program.

What is within the communicator’s control are preparation, knowledge of one’s systems and points of contact, and redundancies within those systems.

A communications pro with more than two decades’ experience, Izquierdo will join FIU instructor Heather Radi-Bermudez in an enlightening session at Ragan’s Social Media Conference for PR, Marketing and Communications Professionals March 11–13, 2020, at Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort.

They will address the topic, “When social media goes ‘into the unknown’: Do’s and don’ts for savvy crisis response.”

“We can’t control what other people are saying about us,” Izquierdo says. “We can’t control what other people are writing about us. We can’t control what the comments are on a social media platform. We have a duty and a responsibility to accurately, and in a very timely fashion, respond to as much as we possibly can.”

How then to act in a crisis? Here are a few tips:

1. Educate your leaders.

In the middle of a crisis, the last thing you need is to have clients, board members or the CEO stomping into your office and yelling about your need to control the message, Izquierdo says. This means educating the clients and executives alike about what you can realistically do.

One frustration communicators face is when leaders don’t realize that a crisis isn’t something you can turn off like a spigot.

“They don’t understand that we can’t go turn off the comments [on social media],” she says. “Turning off the comments on a social media platform is actually going to create a new set of problems.”

The solution is to be proactive and to train leaders. “On top of our difficult job,” she adds, “I think that we absolutely need to be educators of those in our organization so that they understand the importance of the heavy lifting ahead of time.”

2. Prepare for possibilities.

One of the most important ways to mitigate a crisis is to prepare preemptively. That means drawing up communication plans, doing tabletop exercises and having drills for certain crises.

What are the vulnerabilities of your organization? What are the things that realistically could harm you, your employees or your reputation?

“The heavy lifting needs to come at the beginning,” Izquierdo says, “and sometimes there is little patience for that. … We have to build into the business systems the time to develop an accurate picture of what the vulnerability for our organization may or may not be.”

3. Prewrite essential crisis communications.

Having determined the risks, you can compose many types of statements or social media posts in advance.

Is there a possibility of a lockdown due to a threat of violence? Draft a statement or series of statements covering lockdowns. Do you live on a seacoast where hurricanes happen, or in a part of the country prone to tornadoes? Write communications about closing your business, mentioning that you’ll offer more information about the situation when you have it.

“These kinds of statements, you don’t have to necessarily re-create [every time],” Izquierdo says. “You can adjust a little bit and, you know, change the name of the hurricane, change your dates on it or what have you, but have them ready to go.”

4. Respond where the crisis occurs.

When something goes viral—whether it’s a video, a tweet or an Instagram post—respond on the platform where the crisis occurs. Often when companies see a viral post that concerns them, they post a statement on their own website, but neglect the medium where the action is happening.

“That’s kind of like, ‘OK, we’ll check off the box. There’s a statement. We’re done,” Izquierdo says. “It’s important to be where the crisis is. For viral videos, if these are being shared amongst YouTube users, then we need to have a YouTube-related response. … We need to live where that crisis is happening.”



One Response to “4 ways to prepare for a crisis—and respond where it counts”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    “Control the narrative” is easier to say than to do but the great PR firms large and small guide managements to do it.

    PR wisdom that wins such control: Be FIRST in communicating what the pubic needs and how your company is helping the public to get it.

    A PERIL TO CORPORATE LIFE AND LIMB comes when an activist leader says “Do you know what those rich bastards did?”

    One PR problem is that an accusation is made in the name of the public, defense is obviously made in the name of the company, and look who the judge is: the public!

    Another PR problem is that the accusation—and any company can be accused—tells how the public suffers and unfortunately an activist’s accusation is often partly TRUE. If they say you’re polluting the environment, the TRUTH is that your factories take in pristine raw materials but some of what the factories turn out is garbage!

    If they say you are making “too much profit” on the public, how much is too much? For the 50% of American families that live paycheck-to-paycheck, almost any big number may sound like a fortune and in truth you could probably survive on half of that.

    If the accusation against your company is “unfairness” to women, minorities, the handicapped, the aged or another “helpless” group, you can bet even before hearing the accusation that it is partly true. There’s no arguing that the “helpless” certainly have less clout that the company does. Or that SOMEWHERE in the company someone has definitely been unfair.

    If you say it was “just one person, not the company,” activists answer “why did the company let it happen?” And not just “what did management know and when did it know it” but WHY didn’t management know sooner? Does management CARE enough about fairness to workers and to the public?

    Hopeless it’s not. On the contrary, the perils of management becoming injured (and unemployed)—and the wisdom of FIU professor Aileen Izquierdo that “in the midst of crisis we cannot necessarily control the message—may help management see the PR wisdom in speaking first: telling what’s GOOD about management and the company before activists tell something bad.

    “Love thy neighbor,” say preachers, and it’s a good PR rule. If your management either loves thy neighbor or seems to, thy neighbors may well love thee back. If the company donates generously to major health organizations and not just those that fight the disease that hit your CEO’s parents, people you protect may understandably protect your company partly from gratitude and partly so you should keep protecting them.

    Notice how PR Daily’s crisis tips above match up with the opportunities to protect your management.

    .1. “Educate your leaders.” Yes! Professor Izquierdo counsels educating the client “about what you can realistically do.” And what you can do for management is a LOT more before accusation when the public is neutral rather than afterwards when thousands of people may know reasons to hate you.

    .2. “Prepare for possibilities.” Yes again. Not many people may call your CEO and senior officers “bastards” now but after an accusation the name-calling may get worse than that.

    .3. “Prewrite essential crisis communications.” Much of this may already be done in corporate speeches and company publications that are already written and cleared by legal! The job is to get this information and illustrations into your “Crisis File” so you can find what you need immediately and already cleared by legal.

    .4. “Respond where the crisis occurs.” Also respond to WHAT the crisis is about, often an issue of safety, profits or fairness.

    The public needs you more than many people realize until PR reaches the public with more facts. One important fact is that one in every four of us is likely to die of cancer. Another fact is that every five minutes, someone is diagnosed with lymphoma. So if now, before the Big Accusation, your PR makes clear how you are protecting the public by supporting the public’s health protectors like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Lymphoma Research Foundation, look what happens:

    .a. Over 100 million Americans may promptly be on your side, in some cases intensely, because the public cares deeply about public health as we can see from presidential debates, and because it’s easy to get massive media coverage on health. Media NEED good news.

    .b. Activists are less likely to attack you because the Jungle Law of Public Relations is that the strong attack the weak. The stronger you are reputationally, the less likely your management is to be attacked.

    .c. If an attack comes anyhow you have more good things you can talk about, and millions more people will be on your side. As PR Daily articles have pointed out, the public votes not so much for candidates as for itself. If you are protecting the public’s heath, millions of people wants no government body nor anyone else to hurt you.

    You’re far from “helpless” but thanks to timely PR you are helped.

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