Communicating During a Crisis Without Making it Worse

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Maybe Patricia Dunn, the chairwoman of Hewlett Packard (HP), just wanted to know who was talking to reporters so she could be sure they had the most accurate information. It is more likely, however, that she wanted to find out who had loose lips so she could have them removed or at least silenced. Instead, she just made a bad situation worse.


Unfortunately, making a bad situation worse is not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to crisis communications, particularly with the media and law enforcement personnel.

"From the results of our crisis research for the second quarter of 2006 it is apparent that effective crisis management training and skills development are sorely needed in the local market," said Evan Bloom, Managing Director of the Crisis Communications Consultancy. "For example, during this period 40 various crises occurred, of which a staggering 82.5% had their origins inside companies and organizations and 17.5% outside. Management were responsible for nearly 70% of all crises during this period, with employees accountable for just over 30%."

The key point here is that management is causing, not fixing or mitigating crisis situations. That is exactly what happened at HP. Dunn wanted the situation controlled, instead it swiftly spiraled out of control and her efforts landed her on the front pages, and out of a job.

Dunn wasn't entirely wrong, however. She was trying to control communications about the company being made by persons not authorized to make them. One of the biggest challenges companies face in crisis situations is that communications about the situation are coming from everyone, not just the people responsible for communicating it. In some cases, particularly those involving smaller businesses, this can happen because there is no official crisis management plan. Couple that with a high level of perceived “ownership” which often occurs in small business where employees are more like “family”, or at least “close friends”, who therefore feel able and justified in addressing the situation publicly or even just answering questions when sought out by journalists and things can get out of hand fast.

In order to prevent crisis situations from becoming larger than they are or need to be, businesses of all sizes, but especially smaller businesses without an official public relations department or even person, should follow a few simple rules:

  1. Know where the business is vulnerable. Where are problems likely to develop? Is a staff member prone to complaining about clients, vendors or even fellow staff members? If so, what is being done to limit their contact with persons who might be offended by the complaining or, worse, take the comments as an expression of a company-wide sentiment. Is the receptionist or someone else prone to gossip? In the wrong hands, information about others personal relationships, habits or opinions can cause problems. Gossipy or chatty employees should be trained not to share “insider knowledge” with those not employed by the company and particularly not with representatives of the media. Business should also carefully examine the type and amount of information shared with vendors, suppliers and other service providers. Certainly these people need some information to do their job and meet company needs and expectations. However, giving non-employees too much proprietary information can also pose significant risks.
  2. Have a plan. Keep it simple. Identify a crisis team who can evaluate a situation, set the appropriate steps for resolution in motion and address any public or legal inquiries in the immediate aftermath of a crisis situation. Think of this team as the people to notify if the equivalent of a burglar alarm goes off in the middle of the night – the entire staff probably doesn't need to be notified immediately, but a very few key personnel probably need to know, if for no other reason than to make sure the facility is secure for the rest of the night. If the situation is larger than can be reasonably handled by two or three individuals, these are the people who make that determination and decide who will be responsible for handling the crisis itself. In most, but not all cases, the individuals who first spoke to reporters should continue to do so.
  3. Get professional advice. Consult a crisis management professional or firm while developing a crisis management plan. Experienced professionals can help identify key audiences, select and prepare the most likely spokesperson to deal with media who may be on-site even before the full extent of the crisis is known, communicate the importance of following the plan to other staff members and perhaps even identify potential problems and solutions that have been overlooked. In addition, consult a lawyer to ensure that everything is within the law and as a safe-guard should law enforcement become involved in a crisis situation. It may not be necessary to have a crisis management professional or lawyer on staff all the time, however, every business should establish a relationship with these professionals or their firms, so that in the event of a crisis, there is someone at least marginally familiar with the business who can step in to help.
  4. Work the plan. Once a crisis management and communications plan has been developed, distribute it to staff members. Solicit feedback and adjust the plan if necessary. Then, just when everyone is forgetting about it – stage a crisis drill. A crisis drill can be anything from having someone call the business and ask probing questions, to a false burglar alarm, to a staged “real” disaster. Be sure that if the crisis drill impacts anyone outside the firm, law enforcement, fire officials, customers, vendors, etc., that they are alerted that the situation is just a drill. If possible, involve them in the staging, but certainly do not stage a mock bomb threat or hostage situation without first notifying police and fire personnel to what is going on.

It is important to remember that crisis situations can arise very quickly and cause a great deal of stress. Being prepared and practiced will help everyone be more confident dealing with crisis situations as they arise and help reduce the stress on everyone. Remember, the keys to successfully handling any crisis situation are:

  • Quick Action – Crisis situation may take weeks or months or longer to fully resolve, however, it is important that the company is seen as taking immediate action.
  • Tell the truth – lying, especially to law enforcement and probably the media, is a bad idea. In a crisis situation, particularly one that is still unfolding, it is permissible to say “I don't know.” Above all, do not guess. Always verify and reverifiy facts prior to making public statements regarding situations, particularly those involving physical injury. Communicate changes in the status of the situation as quickly as possible.
  • Demonstrate confidence and compassion – this is a very fine line that can be difficult to walk. Practice extensively or leave it to a professional to deal with “outside” audiences. Internal audiences, such as staff members or key vendors or customers, may need to hear directly from the crisis team, but communications with the media and general public can be left to professionals if they are available.
  • Be accessible to the media – as tempting as it may be to close the door, pull the shades and disconnect the phone and computer, these responses will only cause problems. The person designated to deal with the media, whether a staff member or a professional, needs to keep the media informed and be available to answer questions. Unanswered questions and speculation can be very damaging; the best way to prevent them is by being accessible and readily sharing information when it becomes available.

Proactive communication and planning are vital during the events leading up to a crisis and during the crisis period itself. "Many journalists will attest that a company spokesperson was either not available or refused to comment. This is indicative of the fact that companies are not crisis-ready and do not know how to handle the media," Bloom added.

No one wants a crisis to occur. Unfortunately, they do happen and sometimes the best any business can do is communicate the facts and hope it remains manageable.

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