GUEST POST BY Rose McKinney, APR, Fellow PRSA

In crisis communications circles, the gurus—those who handle the messiest of messes—often refer to The Golden Hour. The Golden Hour recognizes the critical 60 minutes that impact life or death in military or trauma situations. It’s critical to business crises as well.

image of stopwatchWhen crises strike our organizations, we must act quickly and decisively. We must communicate clearly—lest the bleeding is excessive, the brand suffers and the reputation withers. And, we need to tap the benefits of brevity.

Brevity, however, comes from thorough preparation. It distills operations and communications to simple, easy-to-follow steps. No one needs or wants a 200-page crisis manual. Thorough, yes; lengthy, absolutely not.

Crisis in and of itself is an ambiguous and often scary idea. History reminds us of the Tylenol crisis and the Exxon Valdez. Today, data breaches are the top-of-mind crisis.

Most of us will never work through crises of this magnitude, but we must be prepared for a more common definition of crisis: It is anything that interrupts normal business transactions and can sometimes threaten the existence of the organization. It could be a negative report about to surface in the media, a disgruntled customer with a complaint, a poorly performing product or even a fire. It could also be a reputation lashing from an unexpected source that spirals off the immediacy of social media and good old word of mouth. It may or may not be based on truth.

Even if you have a well-engineered crisis communications plan ready to go, the pulse rate increases when the call, text or e-mail comes through signaling a change in business as usual. Time is ticking and communications is pivotal to recovery as well as being a springboard for positive reputation. Here are seven things you must do to help stop a crisis in its tracks—quickly and effectively.

1. Action first. Words second.
image of action figure

Tend to the situation while you’re formulating next steps. The operational team should do what it is trained to do (cease operations, treat injuries, stop production, etc.). Meanwhile, the leaders and communicators need to address what happened, express concerns and regrets, let people know what’s being done about it and when to expect a return to normal. A meeting of the minds will support smart, helpful action and frequent yet brief communication.

2. Protocol counts.

Establish a communications protocol—and stick with it—so that the crisis-response team can be effective. Determine who needs to be involved, the facts of the situation, the timing, who will speak, the order of communications and the channels available to reach key audiences. Agree to the protocol and then share it with everyone so there is no confusion about who’s doing what and who’s talking to whom. This is especially helpful for front-line employees who may not know how to handle a phone inquiry, reporter in the lobby or even an e-mail that they get from a friend.

3. The team matters.
image of teamwork statue

You need the CEO, the COO, the CFO, the CCO, IT, HR, legal and a host of others. You’re not trying to gather a large number of people, yet each operational leader brings an important perspective to a crisis and it’s indispensable to have early input and involvement to arrange expedient action. Likely, the CEO will be the spokesperson, but may also require technical expertise and input from subject matter experts. The VP of sales and marketing needs to know what to tell customers about product/service availability. And the functional role holding everything together is communications, which needs to facilitate the flow, craft content and have mediums ready to go.

4. Begin monitoring ASAP.

From the first inkling and continuing forward, comb conversations to determine what’s being said, by whom, and how it’s being interpreted and responded to by others. If it’s error-laden, you must jump in and correct it. If it’s malicious, you need to take it offline. If it’s positive, you need to thank and acknowledge it. In any case, if there are comments about the situation you need to turn it into a conversation, and keep others apprised so it doesn’t blindside a spokesperson.

5. Authentic, transparent messaging works.
image of transparent fluid

This is not the time for gloss or for being long winded. This is the time for honesty, sincerity and brevity. You may not know all the answers, and that’s OK as long as you’re upfront about what you do know and what’s being done. The public, especially your employees and customers, want to know how it will affect them and what you’re doing.

6. Good manners have never been more important.
image of say please

News travels faster and farther than ever before, so keep in mind that publics you never dreamed of communicating with may in fact find your situation of interest–you may gain allies, you may also incite foes. In either case, you may be establishing a relationship in the heat of a crisis, rather than in a more concerted way so “please and thank you” really count with external audiences. Your teammates will appreciate the cordiality, too, since tension and emotion are a volatile combination and contribute to misunderstandings.

Practical Considerations

The following items are key to immediate crisis response:

  • Laptop and power cord, access to a printer and paper
  • Mobile phone with list of contacts (numbers and e-mails for 24-hour access)
  • Document templates saved on a flash drive and on the cloud (media protocol, Q&A)
  • Media lists and wire distribution log in data

Calling the team:

  • Include the following roles in the initial briefing and planning: CEO, CFO, COO, Marketing/Sales, PR, HR, IT, Legal Counsel and any involved plant/product managers.
  • Provide electronic and hard copy documents with contact information.
  • Be clear about spokesperson responsibilities, roles and expectations.
  • Bring along an extra person to take notes, manage tasks, and make copy changes on the fly.

If your crisis communications team begins with these six steps in critical situations, you’re well on your way to handling—and possibly benefiting from—any crisis that arises. The ability to formulate the right messages and communicate briefly, clearly and succinctly should be part of your team’s ongoing routine, crisis or not. Get started now!
Rose McKinney, APR, Fellow PRSA, is founder and CEO of Twin Cities-based Pineapple Reputation Management. Whether it’s an annoying disruption or something more serious, she guides clients to clear communication strategy in times of opportunity and times of challenge.

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