Opinion: When crisis calls

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IT is not a matter of if, but when, a crisis calls, writes Courtney Malengo. Every organisation will face this at one point or another, and how you respond will either bolster your credibility or undermine all you have worked so hard to achieve. Ideally, you have years of positive reputation building and community goodwill under your belt, to help keep the organisation afloat in tough times. 

All too often, the importance of proactive, strategic communications is overlooked because of the hustle and bustle of organisational pressures. While strategic communications should be a priority year-round, sometimes it is only a focus when a crisis strikes. Ultimately, a crisis can be anything that threatens your business reputation or disrupts your business operations, and that same crisis could also land you in the court of public opinion.

For many, the coronavirus pandemic has been a multi-year crisis that has required quick responses, constant communication, and a nimble approach. I’ve worked in a variety of crisis situations, everything ranging from natural disasters to employee misconduct. I’ve also been privy to many things that could have become a crisis, but luckily were prevented in time. In every crisis scenario, regardless of what you are facing, consistent, clear, and timely communication is the bedrock for weathering the storm. 

Here are some crisis communications tips to keep in mind:

Have a crisis communications plan and practice, practice, practice. Preparation is the best form of prevention. Your crisis plan should outline various types of scenarios and the stance your business will take. Be mindful that no crisis plan could, or should, include every possible scenario. Instead, the intent is to provide a broader framework of the types of crises the business may face and how those intersect with the organisation’s mission, values and culture, therefore dictating the type of response. The plan should also appoint a key spokesperson and outline a plan for communicating to your stakeholders, whether employees, customers, or clients. A crisis plan that is too cumbersome or collects dust on a shelf is not helpful. If you routinely plan for crises and undergo training exercises, then your crisis plan will always be relevant and positioned as a living, breathing document. 

+ Mitigate issues before they become a crisis. Often, there are organisational threats that are bubbling below the surface. A keen communicator will know what these are and be able to flag those for mitigation. Many crises result from internal factors and warning signs that have gone unchecked for too long. The more you are aware of organisational risks, the more you have a chance at addressing those challenges head on before they become a five-alarm fire. 

+ Communicate quickly and concisely. During a crisis, you do not have the luxury of time on your side (hence why a crisis plan is important). You need to control your story and the only way to do that is to get ahead of the media cycle by you breaking the news, rather than scrambling to react to the news. If you are stuck in a position of reacting, then react quickly and factually. Don’t stonewall the media or others; give them a reason to trust you and believe your side of the story. 

+ Control your narrative. You will not have the luxury to wait for all the pieces of information when the media is on your doorstep, or if it is a safety concern. Communicate swiftly with the most critical information at that moment in time. Be mindful that as you learn more, the communication will need to evolve and change. What you say, as much as what you do not say, is also important. 

+ Communicate to those affected. The first people to hear of a crisis should be those directly affected by the crisis. While it may also be important for the public to know, your inner circle must know first (employees, clients, etc.). This builds trust and transparency. Also ensure you are consistent with aligning your internal and external messaging and treat all messaging as though it is public or will become public. 

+Cooperate with the media. Be conscientious of a reporter’s deadlines and do your best to provide timely information that also reinforces your narrative. If the media sees you as cooperative things are likely to go much more smoothly. However, if you are evasive, non-responsive, or appear to be hiding something, it will only cause the media to further scrutinise your efforts.

While this is not an exhaustive list, these tips will help you begin to plan for your worst-case scenario. Regardless of industry or type of organisation, we live in an era where consumers and employees are intent on holding organisations and executives accountable. Every organisation is at risk of reputational challenges and possible crises, but preparation truly is the best antidote to weathering those storms.  

Courtney Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanise growth. From concept to completion, Spark + Buzz designs creative and strategic solutions through branding, marketing, and public relations services. Malengo is an accredited public relations professional with a master’s in communication and organisational leadership from Gonzaga University, Washington.