The new rules of crisis communication and why they apply to you

Crisis communication is a fascinating subject – and there’s no shortage of current material to put under the microscope. Cricket Australia, banks, KFC, data breaches – you could spend weeks pulling this stuff apart.

This week at Mumbrella360 – Australia’s biggest media and marketing conference – I had the opportunity to share a stage with some of the country’s leading minds on communicating when it really hits the fan.

The audience was made up of communicators and business leaders from all sectors. Regardless of where they were from, there were universal head nods about the key elements that now govern how any business or organisation must respond when a crisis cripples normal operations. Here are the points that stood out for me:

Respond quickly and slowly

When a catastrophic incident or action hurls you into the headlines for all the wrong reasons, you can’t spend a day deliberating about what to say. Waaay back in the day, we used to talk about the Golden 24 Hours – how to carefully craft your response and release it for maximum impact. Then it was the Golden Hour.

In today’s Twitter Time, an hour is a luxury. Every person out there is a 24-hour live broadcast channel – or as US communication expert Barie Carmichael puts it, “today’s web-enabled auditors of corporate behaviour can create a global movement when their expectations are not met.”

The swiftness of your initial responses sets the tone for your engagement in the entire crisis response. You won’t have all the details, and you can bet others in your business will be urging you to wait, but delaying can be disastrous. Someone else will fill that communication vacuum and they’ll probably know less about the situation tha you. It’s important to at least:

  • Say what’s happened (to the best of your knowledge at the time)
  • Express empathy in acknowledging those impacted
  • Say what’s happening right now
  • Say what’s likely to happen next

While this isn’t exactly a crisis (more an incident that could have had serious consequences), here’s an example of a media report and a swift response by Transport for NSW:

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While all this rapid responding is playing out, you must also be formulating more considered communication based on deeper research into the crisis. This is the meat on your communication skeleton; the next layering of messages for the network of stakeholders (those who are directly impacted by or who can impact your business) who will need more detail, communicated through channels directly to them.

Communication happens in tandem with the operational response

Someone in the audience at Mumbrella360 commented that the hashtag #PRfail, which inevitably appears after a major public mishap, should be changed to #leadershipfail – a great reminder that people often confuse the communication response with the actual response to the crisis. Just because a disaster erupts on social or traditional media doesn’t mean the communications department is responsible for solving the problem. 

The organisation as a whole needs to own the crisis and take responsibility for addressing it and recovering from it. Communication will, no doubt, be a huge part of that – but it’s not the only response. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when a crisis could be made to disappear through spin.

An effective crisis response starts from the inside. Identify the root of the problem and fix it fast – all the while, keeping the world updated on what you’re doing.

KFC’s Great Chicken Crisis in the UK – when it ran out of chook- has been applauded as a great example of how to respond to a business-crippling disaster. Yes, the communication response was awesome – but that wouldn’t have amounted to much if the company didn’t also quickly address the problem and get chicken to its stores quickly – even using some innovative warehousing methods to do it.

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Crisis communication planning has changed

In the past, when we had a relatively limited number of communication channels, it was somewhat easier to predict and plan for the types of crises that might erupt. Today, the variables are endless.

One client embroiled in a recent crisis admitted they “threw their crisis communication plan out the window” because the nature of the issue was something they’d never encountered before and couldn’t have predicted.

A rigid crisis communication plan is no longer effective. In its place, have rock-solid, agreed principles for how you will respond, for example;

  • Your business commits to communicating honestly and authentically at all times
  • You’ll issue your first response within 15 minutes followed by rolling updates
  • You will use plain, understandable language
  • You will act in the interests of those impacted by the crisis
  • You know up-front who your key spokespeople will be, and they are trained and ready

As we discussed at the conference, it’s also critical that your basic processes are in place; your media contacts are up to date, you can find key operational people quickly, and you’ve got easy access to all your social media platforms. These sound obvious, but not everyone takes the time to address them. 

The crisis communication landscape has changed drastically, but some of the principles go back centuries. No business is immune to a crisis. Be ready and stay ready; and if/when it happens to you, use authenticity as your guide in responding

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