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Crisis communications: the pillars of preparation for when things go wrong


Amy Lawrence

Published On:

November 14, 2023

Published In:

PR & Communications

Crisis communications: the pillars of preparation for when things go wrong

An event or occurrence that negatively impacts an organisation’s hard-earned reputation is something every business hopes to avoid. In a time of crisis, there is potential for significant damage to elements underpinning business success, such as consumer trust, stakeholder confidence or financial stability.

Yet, it can happen to any organisation, at any time, and usually when least expected. For example, KFC was forced to close more than half of its UK restaurants in 2018 due to supply chain issues leading to a shortfall of an essential ingredient: chicken. However, KFC used this crisis as an opportunity to employ a proactive approach to communications and PR, regularly updating its customers, with an added mixture of emotion and humour, to maintain its brand identity and popularity.

Coincidences and terrible timing are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corporate communications crises — which are growing in both frequency and magnitude worldwide, especially with cancel culture becoming commonplace. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure; but even crisis communications experts cannot always predict when crises will arise.

While past events may share some similar traits, each one unfolds uniquely. Having a long-term communications strategy in place can align an organisation in a unified direction, but there’s no universal template for dealing with a crisis.

However, one thing is certain, in the event of a crisis, public relations (PR) plays a pivotal role in ensuring an effective response. And although it is not always possible to prevent these circumstances from happening, it is certainly worth investing in a crisis communications strategy to help you manage the impact of an incident as effectively as possible. There are numerous examples that demonstrate how swift, transparent, and empathetic communication can steer a narrative in the right direction to mitigate impact and rebuild trust.

With that in mind, here’s our guide on the five essential pillars of crisis communications:

1. Response time

During a crisis, prompt, decisive, and proactive communication is crucial. Don’t bury your head in the sand, hoping it will blow over, or agonise for too long about how to respond correctly. Act quickly, focus on factual information to control the narrative, and acknowledge the issue to prevent the spread of misinformation.

You can then use owned channels such as the company website or social media accounts to publish timely online statements and updates.

2. Messaging

To ensure you communicate the right message, assemble a crisis team to assess and plan for dealing with the crisis. This should consist of the foundational internal stakeholders, such as communications, legal, senior leadership, and any other department representatives with expert knowledge of the issue. Having a pre-assigned core crisis team will allow for a quicker response if an issue does occur.

The team will need to collaboratively disseminate clear, concise messaging, acknowledging the issue and outlining the company’s response that reflects appropriate accountability and a clear commitment to find a resolution.

Ensure the messaging is transparent and genuine throughout, and does not hide or downplay the issue or its resulting reaction. Any revelation or accusation of dishonesty can further damage credibility.

3. Communication

Once your messaging is determined, all internal team members should be briefed on it, ensuring full alignment and consistency of actions before any contact is made with the press or through social media. Then, the messaging will need to be communicated by a designated, capable spokesperson who can speak clearly and confidently on a consistent basis. This may require professional media training which should also be considered within a long-term crisis plan.

In partnership with expert communication teams, decide on the appropriate channels to deliver a response; this may include press releases, owned channels such as social media platforms and websites, or direct communications such as email. Each channel should be included based on its merit to portray the chosen message to a specific audience in an appropriate and timely manner.

Relationships with journalists, underpinned by ongoing PR activity, are particularly important to ensure the press relates your messaging effectively. Well-crafted press statements, delivering accurate information along with the company’s official response to the crisis, shape the narrative effectively. You can also organise media briefings to give journalists direct access to your spokespeople and tackle their questions head-on. Be prepared to handle tough questions, answering transparently, empathetically and with a cool head.

4. Consistency

Share regular updates that address potentially changing concerns and offer reassurances to keep stakeholders informed and engaged throughout the crisis.

Thorough media monitoring and sentiment analysis should be undertaken daily during and immediately after a crisis. Stay vigilant, ready to respond to emerging developments and dispel misconceptions. Actively listen to stakeholder feedback, showing empathy and a genuine commitment to resolving the issues raised.

It’s important not to forget the power of social media management in a crisis – as much as there is potential for the expression of negativity on social platforms, there is also the possibility to change sentiments by responding where and when it matters. You can do this by monitoring social media channels for mentions of the crisis, and responding promptly and professionally to concerns and enquiries.

5. Learning and informing long-term strategy

Following a crisis, a comprehensive post-crisis evaluation of the communication strategies should always be conducted. Assess which tactics were successful and identify areas that need refinement. These insights can then be used to implement improvements to the crisis communications plan to strengthen the company’s resilience and preparedness for handling potential future crises.

In times of crisis, an organisation’s response can define its future. PR serves as the compass that guides effective crisis communication, but not all communication professionals specialise in handling the task. Working with a credible, experienced PR agency enables you to leverage their diverse expertise when navigating turbulent times. To handle crisis management successfully, the partnership between an organisation and its PR agency must be seamless, and based on a relationship of trust.

For a tailored crisis communications strategy that will help you emerge stronger from any storm, contact GingerMay here.

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