5 common missteps in crisis communication

It’s bound to happen at some point: A data breach will occur, or perhaps some other calamity. Heed these warnings so you’re not caught flatfooted.

Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of if, but when a cyber incident or a data breach will hit your company.

According to Gemalto, in 2018 there were 945 companies that experienced a data breach, which is almost three per day. That means last year, 945 PR teams probably woke up on a random morning to a terrible crisis for which they were ill-prepared.

In looking closely at these crises, we can see a lot of mistakes that PR professionals make that amplify the issue. Here’s what we’re doing wrong:

1. Not starting early enough. Start a crisis plan, and start one now. I realize that it can be tough creating talking points for a crisis that doesn’t exist and hopefully won’t happen. However, having a plan and pre-approved talking points gives you a leg up. Have you ever stared at a blank screen wondering what to write or how to approach something? Perhaps it’s just me. Now imagine staring at a blank screen while your CEO is hovering over your desk. While a reporter is emailing questions. While you’re getting hammered on social media. Writing under those circumstances is exponentially harder. Take the top two or three crises that are keeping your CEO up at night, and start there. Remember that a crisis PR plan doesn’t have to be perfect, but you do need to perfect it over time.

2. Not sharing info quickly enough. Things move very quickly in a crisis, and facts can be hard to come by. In a cyberattack, you probably don’t know much more than something happened. You don’t know what happened, but something is wrong. There’s nothing wrong with saying: “We’re aware of an incident and are looking into it. We will share more information as we confirm the details.” That’s letting your audience know that you’re taking responsibility and will work to remedy the situation. Undercommunicating leaves your audience to fill in the blanks, which is particularly dangerous during a crisis.

3. Not having the right team. There are two ways to build a crisis team—by function and by temperament. For function, you’re going to need people on your team with a specific skillset. Marketing, product, legal, information security, PR, social, executive, maybe facilities or HR will need to be in the room, depending on the crisis. These functions will ensure that you don’t have knowledge gaps in addressing the crisis. The second function, temperament, is much more important than function. You need people in the room who are calm under pressure, detail-oriented, approachable, respected and confident. If you have someone with the wrong personality in the room, your crisis will be a stress-filled disaster.

4. Not building relationships ahead of time. When a crisis hits, you may find yourself working with teams you might not regularly interface with—perhaps your information technology team, facilities or HR. During a crisis, it’s important to have your team’s trust. The same applies with relationships with reporters. If a crisis were to hit tomorrow, who is the first reporter you’d reach out to? Build strong relationships ahead of time that will pay off down the road.

Hint: Everyone needs to eat lunch, so start there.

5. Not learning from your mistakes. The CEO of my former PR agency had a sign hanging in her office saying. “Let’s Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow,” and I’ve adopted that as my personal motto. To be honest, if you’re not making mistakes at work, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. The best way to grow is to learn from those mistakes to make better ones next time. The same thing applies to crises. After the dust settles on every incident or crisis, we have a “Monday morning quarterback” session to identify what went well, and what should we do differently next time.

Hopefully with a bit of preparation you’ll be ready for when a cyber incident lands on your doorstep. Anything I missed? Feel free to share your top crisis tips below.

Kristin Miller is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group. She has over 15 years of PR experience, with a special passion for technology PR. 

 

 

 

COMMENT

5 Responses to “5 common missteps in crisis communication”

    Anonymous says:

    These five are excellent and avoiding another three crisis PR mistakes may help make your PR crisis skills even more excellent.

    .1. Don’t quantify the peril.

    Many a PR crisis starts with an accusation that an organization is
    endangering the public or costing the public money. Saying
    “the injury is way less” is a blunder because this admits guilt.
    You may be more successful by answering that just the opposite is true—that you are PROTECTING the public in three ways you
    report, or SAVING the public money in four ways.

    .2. Don’t make a hasty apology.

    An apology can sound like an admission of guilt so it’s better to
    express not an apology for guilt you don’t bear but heartfelt sympathy for the public which you do care about very much which is why you protect the public in three was and save the public money. Try to decide soon on the ways you are helping the public, ways people will care about.

    .3. Don’t accuse your accusers or the press.

    No matter how unfair your accusers are, say not that they are nasty (or worse) but that “they should try to see the whole picture accurately” and “may not realize” how you protect the public in three ways and save the public money in four.

    The public decides about crises not so much on the basis of “what’s fair” but “what’s best for the public.” If your accusers are shouting mainly angry accusations against your organization—but you are replying with facts on what’s best for the pubic interest—you increase your chances that there will be victory of facts over fears.

    Make a decision on which are the most important ways in which your organization serves the public interest. Gather ye not rosebuds but facts and photos, tapes media reports on how your organization has been a blessing to the public and to good causes that help the public. You want your management to be ready with answers when a journalist asks in effect: “What good are you?”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    These five are excellent and avoiding another three crisis PR mistakes may help make your PR crisis skills even more excellent.

    .1. Don’t quantify the peril.

    Many a PR crisis starts with an accusation that an organization is
    endangering the public or costing the public money. Saying
    “the injury is way less” is a blunder because this admits guilt.
    You may be more successful by answering that just the opposite is true—that you are PROTECTING the public in three ways you
    report, or SAVING the public money in four ways.

    .2. Don’t make a hasty apology.

    An apology can sound like an admission of guilt so it’s better to
    express not an apology for guilt you don’t bear but heartfelt sympathy for the public which you do care about very much which is why you skillfully protect the public and save the public money. Try to decide soon on the ways you are helping the public, ways people will care about.

    .3. Don’t accuse your accusers or the press.

    No matter how unfair your accusers are, say not that they are nasty (or worse) but that “they should try to see the whole picture accurately” and “may not realize” how you protect the public in three ways and save the public money in four, ways you enumerate at every opportunity.

    The public decides about crises not so much on the basis of “what’s fair” but “what’s best for the public.” If your accusers are shouting mainly angry accusations against your organization—but you are replying with facts on what’s best for the pubic interest—you increase your chances that there will be a victory your management loves, a victory of facts over fears.

    Make a decision on which are the most important ways in which your organization serves the public interest. Gather ye not rosebuds but facts and photos, tapes and media reports on how your organization has been a blessing to the public and to good causes that help the public. You want your management to be ready with solidly convincing answers when a journalist asks in effect: “What good are you?”

    Donna Hergenroeder says:

    Kristin and Ronald

    Glad you’re itemizing how to prepare. I like that focus. ‘Plan positive’ seems like a more enjoyable strategy with easier C-suite buy in than pitiful doomsday scenario planning.

    Kristin Miller says:

    I like your point on hasty apologies. Very similar to getting into a car accident, offering an apology can be interpreted as an admission of guilt.

    Kristin Miller says:

    Agree on the ‘plan positive’ approach. Nothing gets c-suite buy in faster than actually going through a crisis that you are ill-prepared for!

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