Crisis Communications: Are you Prepared to Help Your Organization Identify, Manage and Measure Risks?

By Lauren Lawson-Zilai, Senior Director of Public Relations, Goodwill Industries International

At the recent PRSA international conference, I spoke about managing a crisis in a highly networked and volatile world along with my PRSA-NCC colleague, Jennifer Schleman, APR. The session was part of the executive communication symposium, which focused on transitioning traditional communications pros into expert strategic communicators. A summary of the session can be found here.

We have a joke in our office that inevitably, around 5 p.m. on a Friday, we typically get a call or see something online that could impact our organization’s image. Why does this matter? Because social media is a crisis game-changer – depending on your reputation and how you manage the situation – in today’s environment of crisis management.

The Art of Forecasting

Historically, professionals had 24 hours to respond to crises, depending on the news cycle. Now, tweets go live seconds after incidents occur, spreading like wildfire.

Much like you can’t control a fire, but you can manage it, so too can you manage a crisis when it’s perpetuated online.

Issue vs. Crisis

Melissa Agnes is an international crisis and reputation management expert, a keynote speaker and author of “Crisis Ready.

She says an issue and a crisis both have very different meanings but also very different management responses.

An issue is an identified event or trend where you are afforded the time to research the facts and ensure nothing has been overlooked.

A crisis, by definition, is outside normal experience; it causes top executives to drop all other priorities, and it may severely disrupt continuity of the organization’s core business. It is a threat to an organization’s operations or reputation. A crisis involves the need for leadership to be out front with the public, and a crisis can last longer than a day’s bad news.

First, you must first determine the potential types that may affect your organization.

  • Immediate crises are often natural disasters or other major emergencies. There is little opportunity for specific research and planning, but a general plan can be in place to reduce damage and potentially enhance the situation.
  • Emerging crises are those that allow more time for analysis and specific planning. These may include employee dissatisfaction, opposition by various groups, or budget reductions. They can often be anticipated and minimized at early stages.
  • Sustained crises involve situations that won’t go away and may linger for years. Internet rumors are a prime example.

The Golden Hour

Traditional crisis communications references the first hour of any crisis as the “Golden Hour” as that is when organizations have time to establish the facts and most importantly, its response. The growth of digital and social media has dramatically reduced the golden hour to little more than a few seconds. It’s when you determine whether the situation will be a manageable problem or out-of-control disaster.

Organizations should complete broad risk assessments to identify their weaknesses and the possible crises they could face, and document the types of response to be made in such events. It is helpful to go off-site for a period of a few years to envision every possible crisis scenario and develop response statements and sample Q and As to correspond with each.

Additionally, an issues management/crisis communications plan should be in place so the team can follow it in real time as a crisis unfolds. The crisis template plan helps manage all communication before, throughout and after a crisis, and guide the development of a management decision-making framework necessary to manage a crisis.

Assign Each Team Member a Role

As a crisis unfolds, strive for a timely, consistent and candid flow of accurate information to both internal and external publics to allay fears and stifle rumors. The organization should continue to function as normally as possible, leaving it to the crisis management team to contend with the crisis.

Assign specific roles to team members and identify them ahead of time, such as designating:

  • One person to speak to external publics.
  • One person to keep internal stakeholders fully informed.
  • One person to craft a statement and share accurate information with the media.
  • One person to man the social media channels.
  • One person to disseminate information to employees.

Rehearse the team regularly — at least every six months. Train and retrain the spokespeople, emphasizing the need for them to work with others involved so the organization will be seen as speaking with one voice.

Build Your Base of Advocates

People are more likely to believe a third party, so build your brand advocate base over time and ensure that they are equipped with resources such as talking points, statistics and graphics. Advocates can include anyone who interacts with your brand, as well as social media influencers or spokespeople who have significant followings and believe in your brand.

Ensure that your internal communication is just as strong as your external communication. Employees will advocate for the brand if they are equipped with the right information; and make sure they comply with your social media guidelines.

First Response

At the onset of a crisis, conduct a situation report to gather the facts, then immediately issue a holding statement, such as: “We are trying our best to determine what exactly occurred and greatly appreciate your patience. You can find more updates here: [Insert link].”

Compassion is an important ingredient for success in handling a crisis. Follow-up statements should be short, factual and express concern.

It may be necessary to have a dark page where you have testimonials from supporters, a video from a subject matter expert, a response letter and images if necessary. This is a great place to direct people to an answer quickly — whether it’s through social media or broadcast news. It’s also an effective way to explain a complex situation.

Social Media and Crises

It’s imperative to determine when a crisis is brewing, so activate social listening. Search engines (aka Google) have taken over traditional media and provide the quickest and easiest way to find information online. You can also use paid tools, such as Cision or Talkwalker, and a social media management system like Hootsuite to stay on top of the conversation.

Ensure you have established social media community guidelines, which set the tone for engagement and reflect your brand’s personality. If there is a certain hashtag being used to describe your crisis, go where the conversation is and use it. Ditch corporate speak and don’t use acronyms or jargon. Avoid being defensive. Don’t say “no comment” or ignore any general comments or queries, as that can only further the intensity of your crisis.

Use visuals to get your story across. Keep written materials short and concise, and don’t put your holding or response statements in PDFs. People won’t be able to find them through search and you won’t be able to track the number of impressions.

We are living in an era of public mistrust, so we must break through the noise by demonstrating an unwavering commitment to integrity, transparency and authenticity for the brands and organizations we represent.

A livestream can be used for a press conference, ongoing incident updates, emergency response tutorials, instructional discussions, and public Q&A, among others. A message announcing the livestream should be published on all appropriate platforms prior to the broadcast. The engagement format should be detailed, including information about the two-way dialogue.

Community managers should answer questions on the livestream in real-time, regardless if there is a two-way dialogue with the spokesperson in the video, and respond with only publicly available information and links.

Amplify content that announces the livestream as well as the broadcast. Depending on the content, the full video could be edited to soundbites and you can link back to the full video.

Once the Dust Settles

After the crisis is over, reconvene the crisis management team to debrief. Review the crises’ causes, the organization’s responses to it and the outcomes. Update the crisis management/communications plan in light of the most recent experience.

Crisis communications is just a small part of emergency preparedness planning or what some refer to as a Continuity of Operations Plan. Your crisis communications plan is part of a whole, not just a stand-alone guide. Ready.gov is one resource for planning ahead for disasters to business, your people and your community.

About the Author

Lauren Lawson-Zilai is the incoming president for PRSA-NCC. She currently serves as vice president, Hall of Fame chair and liaison to the pro bono and community support, mentoring, new professionals and university relations committees, and is part of the strategic planning committee. She previously served as chair of the pro bono committee; PRSA International Conference Gala chair; Thoth Awards Gala chair; board director; and board secretary; and she served on the association/nonprofit, membership and professional development committees. Lawson-Zilai is the recipient of both the Platinum and Diamond Awards for outstanding contributions to the chapter.

Lawson-Zilai is the senior director of public relations and national spokesperson for Goodwill Industries International, and has been quoted frequently in the media including, ABC Radio, the Associated Press, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Elle Magazine, FOX, The New York Times, The NonProfit Times, PEOPLE Magazine, and USA TODAY.