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When is a crisis not a crisis? When it’s an issue.

By Lynsey Barry:

My very first job in PR was as a police press officer. As you can imagine, my introduction to crisis comms came thick and fast. It was the opposite of what I now tell my team, PR was often ER.

What it taught me is still my greatest skill; being calm when the proverbial hits the fan. While the world (and often the C Suite) is flapping, I move around swan-like…

Well, maybe not quite. But, dealing with a crisis taps into two things that I love. Planning and the adrenaline of making quick decisions in the heat of the moment.

The secret to successful crisis comms is having a plan and process before a crisis hits, to allow you to make crucial choices when you are in the eye of the storm.

Here are my five steps to crisis comms success.

A typewriter with the word crisis

Step one: Are you actually in a crisis?

The first step is to recognise the difference between a crisis and an issue. Mature businesses understand that they will have issues and that is part of being a successful organisation. The important thing is how you deal with an issue and that you differentiate an everyday problem from a real business crisis.

A crisis is defined as; ‘Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt business, significantly damage reputation and/or negatively impact the bottom line.’

Many businesses won’t have a crisis happen very often at all. But, if they do, it can have a severe impact. Being prepared is the step most organisations miss, but it is the number one difference between those that weather the storm and those that don’t.

Step two: The three stages of crisis management

Once you have worked out what a crisis is, you can then start to think about managing one. There are three stages of crisis management: pre-crisis, the crisis itself and post-crisis.

Many organisations focus on the actual crisis, but planning beforehand and learning afterwards are two crucial steps which will enable you to make the best decisions.

Step three: Who are your audiences?

The first part of any planning is to identify who your audiences are, and crucially who is responsible for communicating to them in a crisis.

The message can be tweaked for tone but must always remain consistent; whether you are talking to the media, employees, shareholders or customers. It also makes your life easier when you need to remember what you said to who and when.

Step four: When a crisis hits

Once a crisis hits – there are some key things to consider;

  • Monitor - try to get all the information and make a rapid, thorough assessment of the facts.

  • Manage - decide on key messages for stakeholders, and the best method to reach each group. Brief spokespeople and prepare them to speak.

  • Respond - quickly. A lack of information will cause people to speculate. Make sure the tone of voice of communications is appropriate. Listen as well as give out key messages. Be honest.

  • Reassess - However good your communication is, some stakeholders will remain unhappy. In this case, you may decide to stay quiet, but if you feel you could still change their opinion, prepare an appropriate follow-up communication.

Step five: The aftermath

Once the initial crisis is over, it may be tempting to just crack on with the day job. After all, your to-do list will have gone out of the window as soon as the crisis hit. Don’t miss out on this valuable last step - the learning bit. Have a debrief with key personnel, document what went well, what didn’t, and what you can add to your planning so you are in a stronger position when another crisis comes along.

And remember – keep calm and take control.

If you have a plan in place, it will help you to be on the front foot, allowing you to think about the nuances of the case in question and adapt accordingly.

In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s more important than ever to take control.


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