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Crisis Communications 101

April 30, 2018 Jeff Bradford

PR professionals are never more appreciated by a client than they are when the stuff hits the fan.

The key to successful crisis communications is advance preparation. It is nearly impossible to handle a crisis on an impromptu basis. It is too easy to make a mistake if you are making it up as you go along – and every mistake is magnified ten-fold during a crisis.

First, realize that the goal of crisis communications is NOT to make a bad story go away. The goal is keeping the story to one news cycle. Get everything out the first day – return all phone calls, answer all follow-up questions, line up all interviews, prove all points on Day One.

  • The longer a crisis is in the news, the deeper will be the negative effects.
  • The surest way to keep a story alive is to cover it up – this gives news media a reason to continue digging, and then the cover up itself becomes the story, often a worse and more long-lasting story than the original crisis.
  • There is no need to tell the media everything, but you should answer every question – and be prepared to answer questions that haven’t yet been asked.
  • The purpose of talking points is to anticipate and answer questions with broad statements that answer many questions and follow-up questions – and then stick to the talking points.
  • Deviation from talking points provides a reason for the media to dig deeper.

Here’s how to prepare for your crisis:

  • Decide who your spokesperson will be.
  • Decide how media requests will be handled.
  • Decide how messages will be developed and approved.
  • Brainstorm possible crises and come up with possible responses in advance. (It’s impossible to predict what every possible crisis could be, but by doing this exercise you’ll realize that a handful of responses will actually be appropriate for most crises.)
  • Make sure everyone in the organization knows what to do if a crisis occurs.

Below is a sample crisis plan based on this approach (except for the brainstormed possible crises):

 

SAMPLE COMPANY CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS PLAN

Distribute the final page of this document, entitled “Sample Company Media Crisis Policy,” to all employees.

A media crisis is defined as anything associated with Sample Company that, when released to the public, could harm the reputation of Sample Company or others connected to Sample Company, such as customers and vendors.

If a crisis occurs, this plan should be followed even if damaging information has not been released to the public. This does not mean that we will release previously unreleased information (though this may be the best course in some cases), but simply that we are prepared to deal with whatever may transpire.

 Spokesperson:

  • The primary spokesperson is Sample Company CEO Jim Jones
  • The default spokesperson is PR Counsel Sally Smith
    • PR Counsel will take this role if Sample Company CEO is not available, or if it is determined that, because of the nature of the crisis, it would be better if a non-Sample Company employee was the spokesperson.

Message determination:

  • All messages must be approved by Sample Company CEO Jim Jones and Legal Counsel Robert Doe

Immediate Notifications

  • If the crisis is a matter of life or death, serious injury or abuse and/or significant property damage, the FIRST CALL should be to 911, so that emergency response teams are not delayed.
  • The next call (or first call, if the situation is not life-threatening, etc.) should be to Sample Company CEO.
  • Then proceed to Step One below.

Step One

The person with the most direct knowledge of the situation, along with Sample Company CEO/Interim CEO, should call PR Counsel.

Tell PR Counsel:

  • What happened: what the nature of the crisis is – all of the facts known.
  • If any media have called:
    • Who has called, when they called, what they asked.
    • What, if anything has been communicated to the media.

If a member of the news media calls you about an actual or potential crisis:

  • Tell the reporter that you will have a Sample Company spokesperson call back before his/her deadline.
  • Then ask the reporter:
    • The reporter’s name, news organization, direct phone number. (Both office and mobile, if possible).
    • The reporter’s deadline.
    • What the reporter wants to know. Ask what specific questions the reporter has.
  • DO NOT provide any information. Simply assure the reporter that someone will return the call before deadline.
  • Then pass all the information gathered to PR Counsel.

Step Two

  • PR Counsel will:
  • Return any media calls – assuring reporters that Sample Company will be responsive to their requests as soon as we know all of the facts.
    • If PR Counsel can’t answer reporters’ question by their deadline, our response will be:
      • We will have a statement by their deadline.
      • And will provide answers to their questions within 24 hours.
    • Call a meeting or conference call of the Crisis Communications Team:
      • CEO Jim Jones
      • COO Elizabeth Johnson
      • Legal Counsel Robert Doe
      • PR Counsel Sally Smith
    • If it is not feasible to quickly get all of these people together, a consultation with Sample Company CEO and Legal Counsel will suffice to deal with immediate needs.
      • Nothing can be said to the media until Sample Company CEO and Legal Counsel have been consulted and approved the message.
    • If possible, anyone with direct knowledge of the potential/actual crisis should also be included in this meeting. (If many people have such knowledge, choose the two or three with the best credentials per the nature of the crisis.)
    • During this meeting/call, PR Counsel will:
      • Debrief/brief everyone. (That is, PR Counsel will tell what she knows and ask those in the meeting to share what they know.)
      • Write talking points to guide any interaction with the news media.
    • The spokespersons will be determined in this meeting.
      • Though Sample Company CEO is the designated primary spokesperson, the nature of the incident or other factors may dictate that another person should have this role, or that there should be more than one spokesperson.

Step Three

  • The Spokesperson will inform key audiences, return media calls and respond to questions.
    • First inform key internal and external audiences – such as employees and customers – before word gets out via outside social media sources or news media.
    • The spokesperson will use talking points provided by PR Counsel to guide what is said in all calls.
    • The spokesperson will speak about only what is known in fact, not speculating about what is not known or has not been verified.
  • PR Counsel will post approved statements to social media sites and the Sample Company web site. PR Counsel will monitor social media and respond to all comments.
  • PR Counsel will send this statement via email or text message to the Crisis Communications Team and any others deemed appropriate by the Crisis Communications Team.
  • ONLY designated spokespersons will be authorized to speak to the media about the incident. (The preference is that there be only one spokesperson, if feasible, to reduce possible confusion of message.)

Step Four

  • Suspend ALL advertising and external communication including pre-scheduled social media posts and pre-scheduled emails.
  • Develop key messages for subsequent statements and update as needed. Modify each statement for use in various communication channels – website, Twitter, Facebook, email, telephone, text.
  • Manage ongoing communications with key audiences – sticking to talking points. Operate as if any communication to anyone is a communication to the news media.
  • Log all media calls and contact info, and monitor and log news media and social media coverage.
  • Advise reporters, bloggers and others when important information is reported inaccurately.
  • Document a timeline of events and the responses provided. Keep the crisis team informed of the reporters that have contacted us, what our officials have said to them and where news will appear (if we know).

Keys to Handling a Media Crisis

  • Be Accessible. Don’t hide from the press. Return calls promptly even if it is just to assure reporters that you are working on getting them the information they need.
  • Be Accurate. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t guess or speculate. Offer to find out and get back to them. A reporter would much rather that you be accurate than fast.
  • Be Professional. Remain calm. Don’t get emotional or angry. A reporter who asks aggressive questions is just doing his job. Don’t take it personally.
  • Be on Message. Use your talking points. Bridge all answers toward a point you want to make.

 

(Provide this information to all employees in advance)

Sample Company Media Crisis Policy

A media crisis is defined as anything associated with Sample Company that, when released to the public, could harm the reputation of Sample Company or others connected to Sample Company, such as volunteers, donors or funding organizations.

  • If you believe a crisis has occurred or is about to occur, call PR Counsel Sally Smith at 555-555-5555 (office) or 555-666-6666 (mobile).
    • If the crisis is a matter of life or death, serious injury or abuse and/or significant property damage, your FIRST CALL should be to 911, so that emergency response teams are not delayed

Tell PR Counsel:

  • What happened: what the nature of the crisis is – all of the facts known.
  • If any media have called:
    • Who has called, when they called, what they asked.
    • What, if anything has been communicated to the media.

If a member of the news media calls you about an actual or potential crisis:

  • Tell the reporter that you will have a Sample Company spokesperson call back before his/her deadline.
  • Then ask the reporter:
    • The reporter’s name, news organization, direct phone number. (Both office and mobile, if possible).
    • The reporter’s deadline.
    • What the reporter wants to know. Ask what specific questions the reporter has.
  • DO NOT provide any information. Simply assure the reporter that someone will return the call before deadline.
  • Then pass all the information gathered to PR Counsel.
2 comments on “Crisis Communications 101
  1. Lindy Segall says:

    from an old Texas media relations warhorse…
    like the template. kept simple, under the key message of one news cycle.
    suggested add to “Advance Prep” …make sure primary and secondary spokespersons are adequately trained for media contact. put them through videotaped/recorded simulations.
    noted that you provide these services in your menu.
    onward.

  2. Beth Alexander says:

    This is a really helpful template. Thank you!

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