by Susan Shelby
The phone rings. On the other end is a reporter asking about an incident that just happened involving your company. How would you respond?
A crisis or unexpected event that focuses media attention on your firm can be disruptive to your normal business operations and have a real or perceived negative impact upon your company. Especially in this digital age of social media, bloggers, and the relentless 24×7 news cycle, companies would be naïve to think that they alone control the dialogue during a crisis.
A detailed crisis communications plan will help you evaluate the scope and level of a crisis while establishing a uniform communications system, procedures, and protocols to help your company deal effectively with an unexpected emergency situation. The goal is to provide precise, consistent information to the press, employees, clients, and partners, in an effort to protect and preserve your firm’s image and reputation. If you do not provide information, the story can take on a life of its own — and not always an accurate one.
Whether you hire someone to develop a crisis communications plan for you or handle it in-house, you should create and implement a crisis communications plan before a crisis affects your company. A well-conceived crisis communications plan will outline who to alert in the event of an unfortunate event, how to develop and implement your firm’s response to it, and how to provide staff with the tools they need to handle the situation.
Your plan should include guidelines for dealing with the media, such as:
- Appoint one effective and well-informed spokesperson to interact with the press in order to centralize all information. This is usually the chief executive.
- Monitor social media and online posts diligently, and respond immediately via the same platform. Deal with rumors swiftly.
- Return phone calls as quickly as possible. You can’t influence a story once the deadline has passed.
- If a reporter calls and you’re not prepared to be interviewed, assure them you will call back before their deadline. Don’t feel compelled to be interviewed on the spot. It is entirely acceptable to call them back once you’ve had a chance to gather the facts you need.
- The same is true if a TV crew shows up unexpectedly at your office. Escort them to an area where they will not have access to staff and clients, and have someone stay with them until you’re ready to speak with them.
- Offer an explanation instead of flatly refusing to answer. If something is too controversial to discuss, explain as much as you can. “No comment” sounds as though you’re hiding something.
- Until you have confirmed information, don’t speculate on the cause of the emergency, the condition of the people involved, the resumption of normal operations, the dollar value of losses, etc.
- Answer truthfully. Don’t guess. If you don’t know the answer, offer to find out and tell the reporter you will get back to him or her. Update information frequently, and always stay on the record.
- Consider creating a microsite to post relevant event updates, while simultaneously using social media to reach the public. Being visible and accountable goes a long way towards preserving a firm’s reputation.
A crisis communications plan needs to be a living, breathing document and something you visit and update on a regular basis. Many firms don’t have a crisis communications plan, create one and let it gather dust, or mobilize on the fly, which can be disastrous. The more up-to-date your crisis communications plan, the better prepared you will be to handle an urgent event professionally and with minimum impact to your firm.
Susan Shelby, FSMPS, CPSM, is president and CEO of Rhino PR.