Monday, September 17, 2012

Three Tips for Crisis Communications

Every day we read in the newspaper about some crisis – a criminal indictment, a business failure, a natural disaster, or foreign unrest.  We react to these events in large part based on how the leaders of the organizations involved communicate with us.

I was part of a crisis communications team at one institution where I worked. We had many procedures and lists in place – how and where we would meet when disaster hit, whom we needed to bring into the loop within our company, and the external parties with whom we would need to communicate about the crisis. 

But we couldn’t develop the communications pieces until the problem occurred.  At that point, we typically muddled along, debating several drafts of talking points and press releases as quickly as we could. It would have helped to have a simple framework for what to include in our communications.

An article from the July 2012 issue of the American Bar Association newsletter, Your ABA, provides that framework.  The article describes three points that all emergency communications should contain. Although it was written for lawyers, this framework is generally applicable to anyone communicating in an emergency.

Here are the three points, along with some commentary on each (the points are from the YourABA article;  the commentary is based on my own experience):
  • Show concern.  Almost by definition, in an emergency, someone has been injured or otherwise harmed.  Show concern for their suffering. Remember Bill Clinton’s reputation for "feeling their pain." Worry less about making an admission against your own interest and more about showing empathy. In the early stages of your response, you don’t have to talk about past events that caused the emergency, but you must sympathize with how people are reacting and feeling at the present.
  • Show commitment.  People want to know you will stay with them through the crisis. Talk about your future involvement and commitment to see the situation through to resolution. Even if all you know is that you need to investigate further, make the commitment to investigate fully. State clearly that you will work with any governmental authorities that are involved. Go as far as you can, but no further. You don't want to make promises you can't keep.
  • Show you will take action. In addition to wanting to know you are with them, people want to know you will make it better. Make it clear that you will take action as a result of what occurred and what is discovered during future investigations. Even if you don’t know whether or what corrective action is necessary, talk about fully reviewing the results of any investigation. Don't agree to specific actions too readily, but agree to what you can. Then, keep communicating as you later do act, to show you followed through on what you said you would do.

And always remember that you must be truthful, and you must communicate in ways that your audience will understand. Also, be as transparent as you can be.

Every crisis is an opportunity to improve your relationship with your stakeholders or detract from it. Often, in an emergency, you find yourself at a low point in the relationship. How you respond will make all the difference for the future.

What would you add to this framework for crisis communications?

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