How to effectively communicate during an issue or crisis

CrisisBeing prepared for an issue or crisis is important. Even if you don’t think something negative will happen to your organization, take a moment and think about all the worst-case scenarios that could possibly happen. Then, at the very least, outline the chain of command for communication, how you would provide this information to those affected and to other stakeholders – including media – and how you would follow up and ensure that you consistently communicate and update people as the issue or crisis evolves or is resolved.

Here at AHA, we have worked with clients on some incredibly challenging issues and it’s not easy on anyone. Days are long, pressure is high and depending on the issue or crisis, there can be non-stop media attention, which has its own set of challenges. Planning is important. In fact, for many organizations it is crucial, but I know that there are many people out there who will never be convinced of that and refuse to plan.

Below are some key points to consider when creating an issue/crisis communications plan. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, but the information below should get you thinking about what to do in order to be prepared.

Define Communications Vehicles

It is important to know how your key stakeholders (staff, friends and family of staff, customers or clients, community members, board members, media, etc.) should receive information during an issue or crisis. Defining how you will share information – and confirming that it is the right approach for your stakeholder group – is crucial.

Develop a Straightforward Approval Process

Understanding the approval process for sharing information is also crucial. Setting up a complicated, time-consuming approval process creates unnecessary pressure and stress – and the fact is, during an issue or a crisis, there is no time. Information needs to be accurate, it needs to be timely, and it needs to be communicated quickly. Make sure you have put a process in place that lets the communications person have direct access to the CEO, president or senior executive who is in charge at that time. Don’t put barriers in the communicator’s way.

Communicate with One Voice

Speaking with one voice is critical. Sending out information that contradicts other information because there are too many people communicating publicly only confuses and frustrates everyone. Identify one spokesperson, with one or two backup people (should the spokesperson be unavailable). If you need experts to explain complex topics, have them available with the spokesperson and ensure that they only speak on their specific topic. Make sure there is one communications person in charge of the communications team (if you have more than one person). Let that person update his/her team and manage the messaging directly with the senior executive who is in charge.

Be Transparent

Be as transparent as possible and respond to questions as much as possible. If you can’t respond to a media question, explain why you can’t. (For example: “This situation is evolving and that is a matter for the police, fire department, government, etc. to deal with; we are in the process of understanding just what happened and when we do, we will make a statement.”) Don’t hide, avoid questions or refuse to respond to specific questions. That only makes you look guilty or like you are hiding something. Be upfront; if you made a mistake, say so. Explain how it will never happen again and how you are going to make it right. And for crying out loud – apologize. If you messed up and did something illegal, unethical or wrong, take responsibility for it.

Don’t Take Responses Personally

Don’t take negative or critical responses or attacks personally. This is easier said than done – especially when people have been working late hours, under high pressure. Responding emotionally to comments online, to critical people who come at you as you go to work, or even in the coffee line can create a bigger issue. Sometimes the critics are right, and reviewing negative comments can help you to understand the public’s perception – but that is a job best left to the communications team.

Be Ready 24/7

Realize that the news cycle is 24/7 – and during an issue or a crisis, it is relentless. Social media has changed how we respond to a challenge. It is crucial to understand the social media world and to know when and how to provide news and updates, share information and respond.

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