When a crisis strikes, organizations can sometimes find themselves lost because the situation is outside their realm of experience. The C-suite can get conflicting advice – the lawyers want to say little publicly in anticipation of litigation. But communicators want to jump in and define the story.
The correct course of action is, of course, a compromise between legal and brand protection. But if the company delays too long, the public narrative becomes set and is extremely difficult to undo. Once defined publicly, redefining a situation, company or individual is extraordinarily difficult.
Modern audiences consume information from a wide variety of sources and mediums which can be a unique mix of traditional journalists, direct communications such as text & email; digital video such as YouTube; written and video-based social media; company intranets & bulletin boards along with community and grassroots media. Modern media shapes opinions, but audiences have different media mixes depending on demographics.
The key question for communicators in a crisis is: How do we reach the right audiences with messages that will define a quickly solidifying media narrative? And how do we do so quickly before we are locked into a narrative defined by others?
A good place to start is with a compass to navigate any storm like these Five Laws of Crisis Communication that can serve as a foundation of a crisis plan:
Crisis Law #1: Deciding to Engage. A decision to engage is best made by a pre-established decision-making structure.
Decisions such as whether to publicly engage, how quickly to do so, with what messages, and which audiences to target are complex. But the answers enable an organization to shape the narrative, dispel rumors, and inform all types of media with facts. Engagement creates an open dialogue with the public, and whether communicators choose to address a crisis through interviews, news articles, media content, or journalist outreach, the first step is a decision to engage.
Because defining the situation and preserving, or establishing, trust and transparency cannot be done from behind a conference room door or by waiting to see how a story evolves. So, the lawyers, C-suite execs, communicators, and others need to fully understand each other’s concerns, strengths, and fears. Then create an expedited decision-making structure so speed in a crisis is possible.
Crisis Law #2: Speed is Everything. Move quickly or be defined by others.
In a crisis, it’s critical to move quickly to define the narrative – or else you will be defined on someone else’s terms. Media today is a vast ecosystem in which stories can start anywhere – the professional press, on social, with academia or government, or a multitude of other platforms. The public tends to quickly accept an initial story which frequently becomes that narrative cemented into people’s minds.
Once the public accepts a narrative, altering that perception becomes a challenging, uphill battle. Communicators who engage in defining the issue stand the best chance for success. Speed is also essential in establishing, or keeping, stakeholder trust. But speed depends on a nimble decision-making structure, the ability to gather facts quickly, and an understanding of the audiences you need to reach.
A timely response is everything.
Crisis Law #3: Target Audiences. Know whom you need to reach.
America is a nation of 335 million people, and you do not need to reach all of them. In a crisis, understanding if you need to reach stakeholders, customers, regulators or others is a cornerstone of an effective crisis response. Understand your audiences, study and define them in advance, and decide the proper communication channels to reach them.
Today, information continually surges in innumerable outlets and mediums. Crises often attract specific demographics who ingest information from particular sources. Evaluate your intended audience, learn how they absorb information, and target them.
Crisis Law #4: Deal in Facts, Not Spin.
Individuals or organizations in crisis frequently seek to absolve themselves by manipulating the narrative in their favor through misinformation. Fictitious narratives dilute key messaging while simultaneously damaging reputations in the eyes of the public, journalists, stakeholders, regulators, and others. In today’s world, the old cliche “don’t put lipstick on a pig” still holds. Transparent narratives demonstrate honesty, build trust, and strengthen reputations.
Crisis Law #5: Messaging and Narrative are Key.
Key messages are what you want to stick in people’s minds and the narrative is the story you will tell to deliver those messages. Credible messaging is effective messaging and is paramount when responding to a crisis. Each crisis needs transparent, well-structured messaging that strengthens and builds your narrative.
Do not worry about creating press releases or statements in advance, because crises are always unique and pre-done materials are just rarely useful. However, one necessary preparation step involves fully understanding internal channels and how to acquire information from within your organization.
In the intricate landscape of crisis communications, adhering to your compass, the five immutable laws of crisis communications will provide a structured and strategic approach to navigating the tumultuous waves of public perception. In a crisis, this compass leads communicators and their organizations through the storm, protecting and potentially enhancing reputations in the riptide that is the multifaceted world of modern media.