The best crisis communications plan is one you ideally never have to use. But there’s no telling when your organization could be faced with a crisis or what that crisis might look like. This presents a unique challenge for PR professionals – especially those who aren’t prepared for a crisis.
On one hand, preparation plays a crucial role in crisis management. Playing out likely crisis scenarios, studying past responses to crises and outlining a chain of command are all effective ways to prepare your organization for crises. But unfortunately, according to a Deloitte survey, only 49% of respondents said their companies have playbooks for crisis scenarios.
On the other hand, preparation alone will not make your company crisis-proof. As communicators, we must anticipate any unexpected hurdles thrown our way and possess the skills necessary to overcome them.
When reflecting on the state of crisis communications today, here are three challenges and corresponding opportunities communicators should be aware of and prepared to handle:
1. Pressed for time
When a crisis arises, the expectation is the time to respond is now. The longer a company delays its response, the more its reputation could suffer – or worse, false rumors and misinformation could spread. This element of urgency adds a massive layer of complexity to crisis situations.
A good crisis communicator will take this opportunity to think fast, decide on a response and proceed with confidence and conviction. There is simply not enough time to go into analysis paralysis mode or waste too much time debating responses internally. The key is finding the right combination of swift and strategic during a crisis.
While this is an older example, it’s a classic case of crisis comms done well. Odwalla Foods exemplified swiftly responding to a crisis. When an E. coli contamination in the company’s apple juice caused one child death and more than 60 illnesses, CEO Stephen Williamson immediately responded by recalling almost $7 million worth of Odwalla products and promising to pay all medical costs for those affected. The company’s value dropped significantly in the immediate aftermath, but Coca-Cola purchased the company for $186 million just five years later.
2. A high expectation of transparency
Social media has significantly altered the way we approach crisis situations. Among these changes, one of the most important is the public now expects more transparency from companies than ever before. Meaning, companies absolutely must lead with the truth or risk being exposed further down the road.
Ultimately, this is a good thing: more transparency presents an opportunity to build greater trust between companies and the public, strengthening the relationship between brands and their audience.
Volkswagen paid the price for lacking initial transparency in 2015 when the EPA accused the auto manufacturer of using software to fool and pass emissions tests. Company executives first claimed they had no knowledge of any foul play, but an ensuing investigation forced them to admit they were in fact aware of the software. The scandal significantly damaged Volkswagen’s reputation.
3. The risk of burnout is real
As I am sure many of us who have worked through these situations are aware, crisis communications is a high-pressure, high-stress job. Communicators are often required to be always “on,” leaving them with little-to-no downtime. This can easily lead to burnout, stress and anxiety for the person charged with handling crises.
Rather than just powering through, PR professionals should take this as an opportunity to build in time for reflection and assessing what’s working/not working during a crisis. You may initially think this is impossible due to what I previously mentioned about the “always on” nature of crisis comms, but without taking time to pause, reflect and evaluate/reassess, critical mistakes could be made if communicators are moving too quickly and not thinking strategically.
Without making reflection part of your crisis comms plan, not only could this cause burnout, but it’s also very difficult to lead an organization through a crisis if you aren’t thinking clearly or providing solid counsel.
Recommended skills for effective crisis communications
Managing crises will always be a critical role for communicators. The challenges discussed here will remain for the foreseeable future. So what skills are required for communicators to effectively handle a crisis? I fundamentally believe these three skills are non-negotiable:
- Empathy – During a crisis, you must have the ability to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. That way, you can understand how to address the situation and what is important to that person or group of people.
- Courage – Whether it’s counseling a company to be transparent or encouraging a client to own up to a fault, a good crisis communicator has the courage to advocate for the unpopular solution. It’s vital to be forthcoming with truthful information amid a crisis, no matter how much we (or company leaders) may not want to share it.
- Agility – Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all crisis communications plan. PR professionals must be flexible and adaptable during a crisis. If you’re too fixed on a particular plan and unwilling to pivot when needed, you can’t effectively manage a crisis.
Successfully managing a crisis requires a blend of preparation, anticipation and actionable skills. The rise of social media has contributed to the increasing complexity of these situations, but it’s also pushing companies and audiences to build stronger relationships through vulnerability, transparency and honesty. Remember, always lead with the truth during a crisis – because if you don’t tell your story, someone else will.
Nikki Little is Senior Vice President at Franco. Connect with her on LinkedIn.