Communication in time of crisis

Your company email suddenly goes offline; you cannot access your computer files. There is an accident in your factory; employees are injured. Cash flow dries up; you are forced to file for bankruptcy protection. There are allegations of unacceptable behaviour by members of your organization.

These are but a few examples of a crisis. Each represents a threat to business continuity, is unexpected, and demands a rapid reaction to regain control.

No organization is immune to a crisis. Since a crisis, by definition, occurs without warning (and seemingly at the worst possible time), the only thing you can do is prepare to face it. A crisis that is poorly managed, or ignored, can impact all aspects of your organization. It can represent a reputational risk, have legal repercussions, and become an issue that plays out in the media.

Transparent communication is key to crisis management. Even if you don’t know precisely what led to the current state of affairs, remaining silent is not an option; the vacuum of silence will invariably be filled by rumour and speculation. It is best to acknowledge the situation, promise to conduct a thorough investigation (and immediately do so), and undertake to update stakeholders as you learn more. You want to quickly establish yourself as a trustworthy source of accurate information. Otherwise, you lose control of the message.

It is important to put yourself in the shoes of your stakeholders. Show empathy. Whether a worker has been injured or they are merely locked out of their computer system, they are under stress; be sympathetic to their state of mind in your crisis messaging.

Ultimately, the goal is return to normalcy. If the path to normalcy is smoothed out through clear communications and a sense that you know what you’re doing, you will not only save your business’s reputation, but may even enhance it.

Ensure you do not forget any of your audiences: 

  • Your customers will want to know why deliveries have suddenly stopped and they cannot reach you. 
  • Employees will be contacted by outside parties, meaning they are your ambassadors: Make sure they know what is happening and how to respond to panicked inquiries. 
  • If you are in a regulated business, you will have to work with legal counsel to advise government authorities.
  • Your insurance company must be advised in a timely manner.

Of course, the gold standard for dealing with a crisis is to be prepared. We recommend drawing up a crisis communications plan and practicing its implementation through regular crisis simulation exercises.

Typically, a crisis plan will contain alternate contact information for team members in case primary email systems go down. It will contain an evaluation grid to assess the severity of the issue and the scope of the response. It will establish a chain of command: Who should be advised of a crisis at the outset? What behaviour is expected of each member of the team? What initial messaging should be conveyed to stakeholders? Who is authorized to speak for your company? What should they say if the media comes calling? Have they had media training? 

Ideally, your crisis communications team will include both public relations professionals and legal counsel. While it is best to be open in sharing information, there is a risk of liability, such as when sensitive client information has been stolen by cybercriminals.

To learn more, we invite you to attend the Crisis Management and Cybersecurity Workshop at MTL connect on October 19th, featuring Vincent Gagnon and Larry Markowitz of NATIONAL Public Relations.

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