Don’t panic: 3 ways to prepare for a crisis

Knee-jerk reactions can hurt your company when crisis strikes. Here are three ways to balance rapid response with careful planning.

Crisis communication sits still for no one.

Communicators must now respond more rapidly than ever to crises. One tweet, after all, can explode into a PR firestorm in a matter of seconds.

This “need for speed” doesn’t have to preclude—or ignore—careful planning. Here’s how to strike a balance:

1. Prepare “holding” statements. Communicators tend to be perfectionists when it comes to making compelling statements or developing sound bites.

“In the interest of accuracy, there’s often a temptation to wait until making any public statement during a crisis,” says Lorna Bush, senior vice president at Fineman PR, “but silence can be perceived as a lack of concern. Missing that first media cycle can mean all the difference in how your company is positioned by the press during the critical initial hours of a crisis.”

She recommends prioritizing an initial holding statement to be issued at the first indication of a crisis. The statement should be brief and social media ready to meet the public’s craving and journalists’ need for urgent information, while buying you time to collect the necessary facts and assess the full situation.

“Setting expectations internally for information flow and approvals in advance can also help your management team iron out timing issues without the heat of a real crisis,” Bush says.

Register for PR Daily’s Oct. 13 webinar “Stop Disaster ASAP: New Crisis Communications Lessons for the Mobile Era” for hard-won crisis lessons.

2. Create a social media baseline. Bush recommends monitoring social media continually before crises ever arise.

“This type of listening provides a baseline to measure actual crisis activity or threats when they do happen,” she says. “For example, you’ll have a solid grasp of what constitutes normal buzz if you’re already aware of the extent of conversation about your brand on a daily or weekly basis.”

This preparation will help you know when to sound the alarm if you see an unexplained uptick of activity.

“In a crisis, you want to be able to quickly summarize the change in activity,” Bush says, “and then watch that activity over time to assess the effectiveness of your communications.”

A number of social media analysis tools can easily compare commentary and activity over a range of platforms. They range in cost and capability, but a quick trial can help you determine the right fit for your organization or client. Some of the most popular are Sprout Social, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, Cision, Radian6 and Trendkite.

“Social media monitoring can also help your team track the effectiveness of a certain message or a change in the crisis lifecycle,” Bush says. “Ultimately, you want to see the conversation die down quickly, or see a significant change in the tone of comments toward positive or neutral.”

3. Create mobile-friendly alerts. Most of the people you’ll communicate with during a crisis will be working with a mobile device, rather than from a desktop.

“Since many crisis situations require you to be in the field, the inputs of emails and texts may be overwhelming,” Bush says. “So keep communications mobile-friendly by limiting content to what’s important and by flagging critical messages and deadlines in the subject line.”

She also suggests starting a text group to alert multiple parties to major developments in the initial hours of a crisis.

Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and webinar manager for PR Daily’s PR University. Michael Neuwirth, senior PR director at Dannon Co., and Lorna Bush, SVP at Fineman PR, will share more tips in PR University’s Oct. 13 webinar, Stop Disaster ASAP: New Crisis Communications Lessons for the Mobile Era.”

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