Crisis Communication 101


Federal agencies raid a for-profit college. Yellow tape surrounds a dozen buildings. Uniformed agents fill moving trucks with file cabinets and computer terminals. College administrators draft protestations of innocence and outrage. The college president schedules a press conference.

Students and faculty ask only one question: “Will classes be held tomorrow?”

The answer? Yes.

With that — in terms of strategic communications — order is restored.

There are other questions — Why the raid? What will happen next? Are my credits still good? Will there be an investigation? What about my student loan? All of that can wait. Because the “first” question was answered. After the first question is answered, we are open to hear what follows.

Individuals in crisis seem instinctively to know the critical first questions — and the best answers. Corporations often had equally good instincts, but that was before the term “spin control” was coined. The issue isn’t “what do you want to say to the world?” Rather, it’s “what do the people who matter most to you need to hear?”

A crisis is, by definition, a situation that you didn’t see coming, a situation that can cause you great harm…. and a situation that you can address. If you didn’t see it coming, the people who matter most to you — customers, employees, shareholders, lenders, vendors, business partners — didn’t see it coming either.

These people are on your team already. Give them the best answer you have to their first question. At worst, you’ll ensure an open mind. At best, you’ll rally some of them to your side. Show unawareness or indifference to their foremost concern, and you’ll drive them into the arms of journalists, regulators, competitors, and plaintiff’s attorneys.

Before a single corporate word is uttered, ask yourself, or ask the people who know your key constituencies best: Who matters most right now? What is the most important thing they need us to answer? How will they hear it best?

By flipping the construct — not what we want to say, but what others need to hear — a company can find its way through the crisis and back to normalcy.

For many crisis situations, the best possible answer is one that communicates safety. Is it safe to eat this food? Is it safe to enter the mall after a shooting? Is it safe to take this drug? Safe to return to work? Safe to go home?

Safety also underlies the first questions in less physical corporate crises. Is my job safe? Are my retirement savings safe? What about my checking account? Can I count on merchandise delivery in time for the Christmas selling season? Can I count on getting paid for the merchandise I just shipped for your Christmas selling season?

Answers vary with situations. Getting as close to possible to “You’re safe” is often the best possible response. “No jobs will be lost” or “we’ll pay for everything” or “no interruptions in service” are ideal. But “100 back-office jobs will be lost” and “you’re insured up to $250,000” and “delays of up to one week” are almost as good.

Even if you don’t have answers, trying your best will score points: “Just to be safe, send it back anyway and we’ll replace it” or “we will have an answer for you next Thursday” or even, “we have no idea how bad it could be, but we’ll brief you every morning at 11 until everyone has the answers they need.” Audiences
accept that in crises accurate information is rarely available right at the start. What they won’t accept are “you didn’t know and you pretended you did” and “you knew and you didn’t tell me.”

Corporations in crisis drift away from this simple principle for three reasons: First, the endlessly rising tide of litigation causes managements to design initial statements that appear to limit their legal liability. Second, share-price volatility causes managements to design initial statements that seek to reassure sell-side analysts and short-term investors. Third, media seek the information that makes the liveliest stories, regardless of its relevance to the needs of the corporation’s key audiences (and some “crisis managers” encourage dissemination of lively information).

In crisis situations there is often a rush to generate reams of material and unleash it into the world. The assumption seems to be that people will take the time to sift through it all, and will thereafter think well of the material’s source. The material does help reporters to write longer stories with bigger headlines. It also helps attorneys to fatten up their complaints, and bloggers to enrich their posts. But the people who matter most rarely take the time to do the sifting. The answers they need most are short and simple.

Worse still is the current vogue of “transparency.” When a company pledges transparency, or when it’s demanded from the other side of the table, it is a sign that crisis communications have already completely failed. By the time a stakeholder or a journalist calls for transparency, it is highly likely that the needs of the key audiences have not been met.

At the same time, there can sometimes be value to information by the wagonload. But not in the early moments of a crisis. The top questions of the audiences that companies most wish to inform and influence have simple answers. If the first question is some variant of “Am I OK?”, the next two will usually be “Is the situation under control?” and “Are you doing the right thing (or at least trying to)?” Today, especially in the age of the Internet, simplicity and clarity equal credibility.

Every crisis is different. Some are incredibly simple, some impossibly complex. Some last for days, some for months. Some light up the media, some go almost unnoticed. But they all, to an important degree, turn on what you say first. Identify the audience that matters most in the situation; identify next what that audience needs to hear immediately. Tell them, as simply and clearly and quickly as you can. Things go better when you answer the first question first.

Rhonda Barnat is a leading crisis counselor with The Abernathy MacGregor Group Inc, providing strategic advice to senior management in highly complex and sensitive crises.  She previously managed media relations at The Bank of New York. 

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