Crisis Communication Priorities for a Sudden Crisis

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By Gerard Braud

Media_Relations_CamerasIf you experience a crisis that results in the mainstream media wanting to cover your story, your highest priority crisis communications outlet should be talking to the media. In the vast majority of cases, you should want to have a live human being talking before the media, and not relying on a simple printed statement, e-mail or even social media post.

It works like this: If your crisis is big enough to command media attention one of two things will happen; the media will spontaneously show up at your door or you need to call a news conference and address the media about your crisis.

In a sudden crisis, such as a fire and explosion, or a school shooting, panic and chaos are likely to follow. The fastest way to settle panic and chaos is to calm emotions with a spokesperson that has command of his or her emotions, command of his or her words, and can demonstrate some degree of competence and control.

Many organizations think a written statement is sufficient. It is better than nothing, but those are cold words. A spoken statement is better than a written statement of cold words is. Audio of the written words creates warm words. Audio allows you to convey emotion. Best of all is a person with warm words appearing in person or captured on tender video. The look on a person’s face conveys more emotions than his or her words alone.

In the case studies I have mentioned in previous articles, including at Virginia Tech, at the University of South Florida, at Dominos Pizza, a human being before the media or on video could have made a huge difference in the first hour of the crisis.

The size of your communications department comes into play, as you determine whether you have enough people to record a podcast or web video. If you select podcasting and web video, keep in mind that sites like YouTube limit the length of what you post.

Add to your to-do list time to reflect upon what your technical capabilities are for using social media in the form of podcasting and web video.

Next on my priority list after the spoken word, is posting your information to your website… the website that you control. Next, a series of mass e-mails must be sent to various groups of stakeholders. These stakeholders will include the media, employees, and then groups specific to your organization, such as customers, parents, students, patient families, government officials, etc. If e-mail is down, you will have to contact some of those people by phone as a Plan B. If phones are down, you will have to have a Plan C.

Add to your to-do list the need to make sure you have those lists made on a clear sunny day. Have the e-mail addresses in group folders for fast e-mail notifications. Also, have a full written, printed version in your plan.

It should be noted that I have a strong belief that all audiences are equal and that you need to reach all audiences simultaneously, or as close to simultaneously as possible. When I first started writing crisis communications plans in 1996, my top priority audience was the media because, at the time, the media were the messengers to the masses. Back then, if a company needed to talk with their employees, the easiest way to do so was to put them in front of a television. Technology has changed that drastically.

There are so many ways to talk directly to your employees and key stakeholders. This means that in many respects you can circumvent the media and how the media might interpret the information before sharing it with your audience. Technology at your disposal includes e-mail and websites, plus reverse 911 phone call capabilities, plus text messaging and more.

One problem that many organizations face is that their IT, or Information Technology departments, severely limit who has the ability to update the corporate website. This can be a fatal flaw if you do not have the ability to update your website.

I recently heard a speaker with a public relations firm present a case study lauding how she and her client so masterfully used Facebook and Twitter to reach out to their community during a crisis. When I asked how they used their own website, their answer was, “well, we didn’t have the ability to use our website, so we had to use Facebook and Twitter.” Whoa?! Really? What that tells me is that both the PR person and the communicator at the company did not have a crisis communications plan in place. Instead, they selected to wing it. It says to me that these are people who failed to plan. When you fail to plan, plan to fail.

Add to your to-do list the need for a meeting with your IT department to make sure you have access to a portion of your website so that you can control the content of information regarding your crisis.

In a previous article I discussed how a WordPress blog template is your best tool for fast web updates.

Controlling the flow of information on your website and getting it posted quickly requires a number of things. Previously I mentioned that every one of my plans has dozens of pre-written crisis communications templates. Each one of those templates can be:

a) given to your spokesperson to read to media on site

b) given to a spokesperson from human resources to read to employees if an employee meeting is called

c) can be posted in its entirety to your website

d) can be e-mailed to your key audiences, while still including a link in the e-mail that brings everyone back to your website

To speed the process of posting to your website, you can create what is often called dark pages. These are web pages that are written and coded and sit unpublished. When you need them, you simply hit publish and the information is up for the world to see. This is also covered in more detail in my previous article about using WordPress.

AirplaneMany major organizations do a poor job of being ready to use their websites. I find airlines to be among the worst. On September 11, 2001, neither American nor United Airlines were ready to use their website for crisis communications. In January 2009, during the miracle on the Hudson landing by US Airways, the company was still more focused on selling tickets on their website than informing the world about their crisis. The US Airways website, to their credit, had a hyperlink on their home page, which I recommend. The link took you to a page in the corporate newsroom with more information, which I also recommend. However, on subsequent visits to the home page, the hyperlink would disappear. If you tried to navigate with the back button to the home page, the home page defaulted to a ticket reservations page. Overall, it was a frustrating experience trying to get first hand information about the unfolding event. If you frustrate your visitors, they will get their information from other sources, which may be less reliable, yet more accessible than your site.

Add to your to-do list the need to convert your pre-written templates into dark pages that are ready to be used quickly.

As mentioned in previous articles, a blog is easy to use and gets high rankings in search engines. It allows you to store many unpublished pages, which are just one click away from being published. Also, search engines place a high value on your blog because a blog is treated as though it is the most current news on the web. Furthermore, the title you place on your blog is quickly picked up by search engines. Hence, if my crisis is food tampering at Dominos, my blog headine would be Dominos Pizza – Food Tampering – Employee Hoax. Simply think of the words that your audience would put in a search engine and use those words in your headline. Don’t sanitize the words in the headlines because the search engines need to see the words that the web searching audience would use.

Additionally, a blog gives you the ability to open the conversation through the comment section of the blog, if you’d like. There are other benefits that you can achieve by using a blog on a regular basis. Industry bloggers and trade publications will follow your blog and use it daily, as well as on the day of the crisis. Add to your to-do list to have an official blog.  Many corporations still are of the opinion that a blog is a bad thing because they don’t want to hear the nasty things customers say about them.


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