There’s no hiding from a crisis. The role of public relations is to handle crisis communications in a thoughtful, strategic and honest way. In light of the Flint water crisis, we’d like to review how to handle a crisis when you’re in the thick of things and provide some recommendations.
- Step 1 – Be proactive/responsive. You want to get the first word in; the first 24 hours count. Otherwise, others control your message and you are reactive/defensive rather than proactive and on the offensive. Your CEO or key spokesperson needs to be upfront and honest. Don’t downplay the incident or release unconfirmed information – this will help you avoid backtracking and correcting errors. Your first point of outreach can be as simple as: “We are addressing (insert situation) and are working with (insert the proper parties) who are investigating further. We will keep you updated as new information becomes available.” Early reports during the Flint water crisis indicated that nothing was wrong with the water and that people were overreacting. Likewise, remember the BP CEO’s comments early on following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? He said, “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.” That was far from the truth. Wildlife alone are still negatively affected and may be for years to come.
- Step 2 – Communicate frequently/consistently. Don’t defend. Be empathetic; communicate often. Put people and safety ahead of politics, saving money, meeting production schedules, etc.. Once information is collected and confirmed, share it with key audiences, such as the media, employees, customers, residents, etc. make sure to communicate your messaging the same way externally as you do internally. Provide updated information and respond to inquiries in a timely manner. Address what is being done and steps you are taking to prevent an incident from happening again. In the case of the Flint water crisis, many people — including celebrities — are trying to help and are sending money and truckloads of bottled water, and some reports indicate not to send water. Is that helping or hindering efforts – what is needed? Not needed? What is the best way to help? The message is not clear.
- Step 3 – Monitor the conversation. Both online and offline, be aware of what is being said about you, your company and your industry. From this research, you’ll know where it’s crucial to insert updates as you continue to manage the situation. You will be better equipped to handle it if you already know what people are saying and sharing. For the Flint water crisis, multiple parties — from politicians to celebrities and individuals to companies — have an opinion and are weighing in on the conversation. What’s the truth? Provide the facts and dispel the myths. Be clear on the situation and the need.
Being prepared in the thick of a crisis requires investing now in crisis training (which we offer), so you’re better prepared in the event of a crisis… Because whether it’s next month or years from now, there’s bound to be some form of crisis in your future.
Are you prepared?
Rich has served as a crisis communications counselor and onsite trainer for a number of clients for more than 20 years, working front lines on a variety of incidents including theft, fire, explosion, bomb threat, evacuation, layoff, discrimination suit, union strike, workplace violence, credit card breach, etc.