Posted in on May 13, 2020

Crisis Communications: What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting a Crisis

Today’s guest post is authored by Christopher Lukach, APR, president of AKCG – Public Relations Counselors, a national public relations consultancy helping senior-living organizations prepare for and respond to the issues and crises that impact reputations and, by extension, their bottom lines. AKCG is an affiliate of the IPREX Global Network.

What is a “crisis”? It’s a difficult thing to define. I would like to say it falls into the category of “you’ll know it when you see it,” but, while some crises are blindingly obvious risks to an organization (a fire, criminal allegations or disruption of normal operations), subtle and nuanced crises can sometimes go unnoticed or unaddressed by leadership in crisis communications planning.

As a crisis communications counselor, I can say — broadly — a crisis is any situation that threatens your organization’s reputation, goodwill with key stakeholders or your business operations. No matter how big or small a crisis may outwardly seem, any threat to these should be given appropriate attention and, more important, action.

Consider these tips for ensuring you have the right crisis communications mindset.

woman who cannot sleep

1. Ask Yourself: “What Keeps Me Awake at Night?”

While crises can be unexpected, they should rarely — if ever — come as a surprise. Those organizations that are best equipped to weather crises are the ones that have dedicated considerable time and resources to self-assessment and preparation. Understand your organization’s vulnerabilities and identify areas of potential reputational risk. It’s a helpful, albeit stressful, exercise to think through these risks when not facing an imminent one. That means reviewing current operations and organizational structure, but it also means examining your organization’s past. 

 More and more in crisis communications, we find that a decades-old rumor or allegation can be just as disruptive as any modern-day crisis. Remember: Statutes of limitations are a legal concept, not a reputational one. Years-old, even decades-old, crises can be tomorrow’s communications challenge.

It pays to know what areas of risk are particularly likely or particularly damaging. But where do you go from there?

2. Plan Ahead

Now as ever, speed is key in crisis communications. Years ago, I counseled clients about the “golden hour” — a crucial window of time to communicate in the early stages of a crisis. Now, that golden hour has shriveled to mere minutes.

In this communications landscape, our first message sets the tone for our entire crisis response. Can we build on the strength and resolve of that first message? Or will you have to correct course and dig ourselves out of a self-dug reputational hole?

people discussing a plan

 While it is difficult to anticipate exactly how you’ll respond to a crisis that hasn’t happened yet, you can prepare a template for some of the things you might communicate. For each risk you face, outline a few messages that speak to your organization’s mission, values and potential courses of action. Preparing this language in advance (and, if possible, clearing it with your legal department) saves vital minutes during a crisis and helps ensure audiences form their first impression based on your message, not rumors, speculation or hearsay.

3. Assemble Your Crisis Team in Advance

You may feel confident in your crisis response plan on paper, but effective responses hinge on being able to identify risk in real time and having decision makers ready to act. Assign a small group of key leaders within your organization to your crisis response team, and, should you face a challenging or pivotal moment, ensure they are able to quickly convene, discuss the situation and advance communications (both internal and external). Remember, timely communication can set the tone for key stakeholders, but not if it is delayed in a half dozen layers of bureaucratic approval.

4. Take Action

Action, or the lack thereof, is your response to a crisis. Your public relations team — and by extension, your crisis response team — can only communicate the actions or decisions your organization does or does not take. If you learn of employee misconduct, will you discipline or terminate the individual? Will you investigate? If allegations arise that you provide poor quality goods or services, will you refine your processes? Without decisiveness and clear direction, your message hardly matters.

5. Be Transparent and Follow Through on Promises

Honesty is the linchpin to your crisis response. Without it, your credibility, and everything that comes with it, falls apart. Often, your organization will know more information than you’re willing or able to share publicly. That’s okay. However, you want to ensure you’re not misleading your audiences through your communication. We often counsel clients to craft their response under the assumption that everything they know today could become public tomorrow. Not only does this remove the guesswork, it in some ways helps you live up to your company’s values.

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