Who Should I Communicate with First in a Crisis?

Who Should I Communicate with First in a Crisis?

By Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC

Crisis communications and your crisis communications plan require you to know who your stakeholders are. In other words, who needs to hear your message when a crisis or disaster strikes?

In the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications, Step 2 is writing your crisis communication plan. This is where you should both identify your stakeholders as well as prioritize which audiences are most critical to get your message to first.

(If you are not familiar with the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications, watch our free 5-part video series. Just sign up with this link.)

Media once were the go-to top priority of audiences. That has changed drastically with the advent of email in the 1990’s and then the advent of social media in the mid-2000s.

The first crisis communications plan I wrote was in 1996 and it focused on getting a spokesperson to the media by way of an interview or a news conference. The media were and are the messengers to the masses. However, in 1996, many companies did not have company-wide email and many news organizations did not have either email or the internet. When I left my job as a television reporter in 1994, we had just gotten computers, but they didn’t even have spell check and they didn’t connect to the web. They were just fancy typewriters.

Email and social media have given employees a pathway to forward organizational information to reporters. This is cause for everyone in public relations and crisis communications to recognize that your employees may be your number one stakeholder audience in a crisis.

Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself and the organization you represent.

Here are your likely stakeholders:

  • Employees
  • Media
  • Customers
  • Your community
  • Certain elected officials

However, your crisis communications plan must reflect variables that allow you to prioritize who hears from you first during a crisis.

Which stakeholders should hear from you first in a crisis?

Who you communicate with depends upon:

  • The type of crisis taking place
  • The number of people you have on your communications staff

As a general rule, if your crisis sends the media rushing to your location to report on your breaking news, you should give them top priority as a stakeholder group. Why? Because if you fail to give them accurate information they will go into speculation mode, which you never want.

This quickly becomes a delicate dance, because your employees are likely hearing rumors and your job is to quell rumors by quickly providing facts.

So what do you do?

All audiences are important and your goal should be to get equal information to all audiences as simultaneously as possible. Your ability to do this depends upon how many people are on your communications staff.

If media are at your door waiting for a statement, my preference is that you go speak to them first, before you post any information to your website and before you share any information with your employees and before you post anything to social media.

The secret to success is by sharing one statement with all audiences. In Step 3 of the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications, we urge you to focus on writing a library of pre-written statements.

That one statement should serve consistently to all audiences.

Do the dance.

The dance goes this way:

  • Read your edited statement to the media first, if they are on site.
  • As simultaneously as possible, publish that identical statement to your website newsroom.
  • As soon as the statement is published to the web, send an email to all employees who need to know the truth.
  • If you have critical audiences such as customers or government officials, they should also get an email with a link to your website newsroom.
  • If your organization uses social media, you can post a link back to your website newsroom.
  • Time permitting, you should take the same script you read to the media and use it as a video script. You then have the option to create a YouTube video that can be added to your website, as well as videos that can be shared on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Time permitting, you can use the same script to broadcast live on your most popular video channels.

Never publish your statement to your website newsroom if you plan to read it to the media. You don’t want reporters speed reading your statement and ruining your news conference with pre-mature questions.

Likewise, you don’t want your employees forwarding an email or web link to reporters before you send it to them yourself. When you send it to reporters, you are being honest and transparent. When an employee sends the notice to a reporter, then the reporter views this as a scoop from a source and may well blow it out of proportion.

If no media are at your door, your dance should go this way:

  • Publish your statement to your website newsroom
  • Email all employees who need to know
  • Email other important stakeholders
  • Post a link to social media directing people to your website newsroom.
  • Consider recording videos
  • Consider live videos

The bottom line is that all audiences are equally important. But Step 2 in the 5 Steps to Effective Crisis Communications is to write your crisis communications plan.

Your crisis communications plan should spell out:

  • Your stakeholder audiences
  • Your priority of which audience is communicated with
  • The variables for adjusting those priorities
  • The adjustments of your variables and priorities based on the number of people on your communications staff

As always, your crisis communications goes perfectly when these decisions are made on a clear, sunny day. Do not wait until you are in the midst of a crisis.

If we can help prepare you to communicate more effectively in a crisis, please reach out to us to ask for assistance. That’s why we’re here.

Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”

More crisis communications articles:

How to Use Social Media for Crisis Communications

The Biggest Lie in Crisis Communications

4 Steps Every Company Needs to Take in Order to Avoid the Default Spokesperson

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