The (five) golden rules for crisis communications

By Beth Wenbourne Katz, September 1, 2016

Stay in the public relations business long enough and one day you’ll be on the receiving end of a media firestorm, and — no matter how good you are at your job — it’s going to suck. Still, this is where you earn those salaries and your stripes, so you may as well be prepared. The PRSA Sacramento chapter recently held a luncheon in which seasoned PR professional Nancy Kinkaid (@PRDiva0) and investigative reporter Kurtis Ming (@CBS13CallKurtis) gave some sound advice that can help you to be ready when that day comes. Here are five key takeaways:

Crisis Comms luncheon Aug 2016

PRSA members and guests learn about crisis communications during the Chapter’s August 2016 luncheon program. (Caity Heim photo)

Tweet this: #CrisisManagement Tips from @PRSASacramento, @CBS13CallKurtis, @PRDiva0 and @BethyDub. http://bit.ly/2bN8tm1

  • Be proactive: Both Ming and Kinkaid agree that every strong crisis communication plan includes proactive messaging and planning. This includes easy steps, such as ensuring that you have the personal mobile numbers of all the executives in the C-suite. (After all, crises don’t always adhere to business hours.) It also means that you should prepare your team by conducting media training for all employees. Remember, everyone who works in your building could be approached by the media, so at the minimum they need to be prepared with a generic statement and the contact information for the appointed spokesperson.
  • Be honest and transparent: Never, ever, ever, EVER be dishonest about a crisis. This is absolutely crucial. If your company or agency is at fault, own it and be prepared to tell what steps are being taken to fix the problem.
  • Be responsive: Failing to respond to the media looks suspicious. Even if you have nothing to hide, the proverbial ‘crickets’ set off alarm bells for reporters. Do your best to answer in a timely manner, with all the information you are able to give. If you need more time, tell them that you are looking into the issue and that you will be back in touch. Then, get back in touch. Earn a reporter’s trust by following through. And, as Ming reminded us, “ignoring me (a reporter) isn’t going to make me go away.”
  • Be accessible: During a big crisis, ensure that you and your spokesperson are accessible to the media. Establish a command center and provide regular updates as the situation progresses. Consider building an alternative, “dark” website that can be launched and updated throughout the crisis so that the added attention doesn’t crash your company’s main page. Consider utilizing social media for updates, too. Twitter and Snapchat are excellent platforms to quickly disseminate information.
  • Be conscientious of the numbers: According to Kincaid, during stressful situations, people forget 80 percent of what they hear, and the 20 percent they retain is generally negative messaging. Add to that the 70 percent of reporters who will use a solid, confirmed Twitter message as a quote or source and you could be setting yourself up for disaster if you don’t have a plan. Make sure that all stakeholders and anyone with access to social media accounts stick to the message that has been approved and tested.

Of course every crisis is different, and there’s no way that you can possibly manage it perfectly. Still, by following the recommendations above and conducting a post-crisis analysis, you can help mitigate the situation and avoid compounding the situation.