Tips for External Crisis Communications
There are some things you can’t learn until you’re in it. This is something nearly all of us are experiencing in one way or another right now. A business being “in crisis” can upend workdays, daily practices and even jobs. The operational side of the recovery can consume everyone and it’s natural to lean inward, ignoring the exposure that might be happening externally whether you want it or not. It’s tempting to hide, and there’s always the option of saying “no comment”.
I’ve used “no comment” a lot, but there’s a lot more to that statement that needs to be worked through when it comes to crisis communications. Don’t miss an opportunity to recover better because you’re scared of exposure. And don’t jump on the opportunity for exposure while risking your recovery. The tips below are part of my crisis strategy while working in hospitality for many years. They are a shout out to my work-family who are all going through a tough time, but applicable to many industries. Always consult your communications professional before you speak out but consider these high-level tips from someone who used to handle crisis communications daily, toward your best path through hard days.
Don’t Fuel the Fire
If there’s one tip to remember, this is the one. The news cycle is fast, people will move on from your crisis long before you have. In most cases, they’re on to the next topic by the next day if not sooner. When you have an opportunity to comment, share a statement or provide an interview, consider if anyone will even care what is said after you said it. If there is a chance that the world will move on quickly, don’t add to a story, don’t make it bigger and better even if you feel the need to defend yourself. The world will get over it, you need to as well. If it’s bigger than that, address it.
Avoid Negative Associations
Don’t apologize. In some cases that may seem hard, inhuman, the wrong thing to do. Maybe you are at fault in the long run, maybe you are deeply sorry for the situation. Find another way to say it. Be honest, kind and human, but directly admitting fault for a situation can make you liable for the result. Know everything there is to know about your situation, call your lawyer (see Call Legal below) and be sincere but smart about your words when you feel like you should apologize for a crisis situation.
Another important tactic in crisis situations is declining to participate in topics that are not going to benefit your company, even if it’s a chance for exposure. Often my clients, who are experts in their field, are contacted by reporters to comment on different situations. While the outlet and exposure may seem beneficial, the topic and context of what the reporter is covering determines if we comment. People skim articles. They’ll see the headline, the first paragraph maybe summarizing an issue and your company name. What they come away with is an association of your company with a negative topic, even if your quote was angled in a positive way.
Reporters Are Doing Their Jobs
One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in public relations is this - you’re doing your job, and reporters are doing theirs. It’s hard to remember this when they’re beating down your door to comment or asking for info on something that could put your company at risk. But at the end of the day, that is literally their job. It’s not personal. I tell myself that before every phone call, I’ve even opened conversations with reporters by reminding us both of that, your job is reporting the info, my job is protecting the company, let’s figure this out together.
If You’re Doing Good, Say It
Humility in a leader is a virtue. Humility in a company is wasteful. If you are doing something right, not capitalizing, but genuinely doing right in a crisis – tell that story. If you are helping people, supporting employees, making something wrong right, it’s important that you communicate your good will and your efforts. Your gut will tell you the line between telling your story and taking advantage of a situation. Look for the good, look for the helpers, tell that story and control the narrative that comes from your company.
Yes it costs money, but it costs you more money to get sued. When issuing a statement, especially in defense of a situation where your company has been accused, is at fault or is dealing with something very serious, it’s important that you have legal counsel review from a liability standpoint to make sure you’re not putting yourself at risk. Keep in mind, through that process that lawyers tend to strip any ambiguous language from statements, which is helpful, but be sure to maintain your company’s voice and your heart to some effect. Empathy in these times goes a long way.
Continuing with that thought, throughout all of these efforts, stay human. Fear can create a naturally cold reaction but showing your warmth and openness helps people understand that you care. There should be a sense of mutual understanding and shared sacrifice in what you say, if you choose to say anything at all. A crisis is a fire (only sometimes literally) if you feed it in your external messaging, it grows. If you don’t, it’s less likely to spread. And if you clean up the ashes, it’s ok to tell people that you helped.
External crisis management can be intimidating and difficult to handle, there are communications managers everywhere who can help navigate a situation while following your company’s guidelines, myself included. Reach out for consulting services anytime. Stay well out there!