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Building a Strong Crisis Communications Strategy: 7 Steps to Consider

By Nicole Sullivan | On June 26, 2020

I recently had the privilege of sitting in on a webinar that addressed one of the most critical, yet often daunting, aspects in a PR toolkit – crisis communications. Led by Muck Rack COO Natan Edelsburg and joined by Theresa Lee, U.S. Partner Manager for the listening and analytics company, Talkwalker, the two broke down the seven key steps to building an effective cross-departmental crisis communications plan. It goes without saying that it’s a session that came at a pivotal time in both our world and industry. Between the current social justice movement and a global pandemic that punched a hole into 2020, many brands have come under scrutiny and fire for their actions. PR and internal communications professionals must therefore be fully prepared for any and all scenarios that can potentially impact their own brands, clients, as well as their customers.

It’s important to first recognize that not all crises are on the same level or require the same kind of response. The three levels discussed were: Potential for disaster (or the biggie of the group that predominantly stems from events like product recalls, workplace harassment lawsuits, company scandals, and negligence). This was followed by customer complaints or criticism. And the last group included competitor and/or industry crisis that can tarnish reputations indirectly. 

While executing against a crisis communications plan inherently comes after one of these types of incidents occur, it’s critical that companies also develop and establish strategies well ahead of any crisis to ensure that they are fully prepared with a designated course of action. Below is a high-level overview of the seven steps to consider before, during and post-crisis.

Step 1: Assemble a crisis response team: These are the team members notified when a crisis strikes, with a clear chain of command and overall approval process. Companies should regularly conduct simulations or drills with these groups so that everyone knows what’s expected of them if and when a crisis strikes, including which executives should be involved (CEO, CMO, legal, HR, etc.). While someone media trained and knowledgeable should ultimately lead as the external talking head, everyone on the team should be prepped.

Step 2: Create the PR management crisis plans: Now that you’ve nominated and trained your teams, it’s time to create the plans that will be used for each department. All plans should include a checklist of what needs to be done along with detailed contact information for team members (you don’t want to be caught scrambling last minute to find this info). This also includes keeping a running list of lawyers, experts, influencers, and even key reporters that you have strong relationships with on file and at the ready should you need to contact them. And, while you can’t necessarily finalize messaging before a crisis strikes, it’s still important to build out the framework and have messaging drafts at the ready to pull from when needed.

Step 3: Draft holding statements: The third step is to draft multiple holding statements for potential reputational risks and crises, and not only write them, but make sure to review and update them regularly. Legal and communications should also discuss any concerns each have in order to determine what’s both legally sound and effective comms. It was advised in the session to act quickly, but also avoid being too impulsive – which is easier to achieve with preapproved messaging and a well-prepped team. Also consider what may be seen as excessively aggressive, or deflecting, and avoid staying silent when stakeholders are looking for a response.

Step 4: Gather intelligence: It’s important for brands to gather key information and facts before reacting. Even beyond crisis management, regularly keeping a finger on both the pulse of the industry as well as your own company through monitoring technology and tools will help you stay informed in real-time on both positive and negative content and detect any warning signs early on. This should take into account brand trending topics, influencers, key personnel and various relevant hashtags. In terms of a crisis, gathering that information as comprehensively as possible across all channels, fact checking it and above all, remaining calm, is key.  

Step 5: Build crisis messaging: Recommended steps here are to apologize, take action, be factual, and move swiftly. By offering an empathetic apology, brands can express regret that a crisis happened without any admission of guilt. And as mentioned in Step 4, gathering intelligence and confirming and relaying the facts also ensures that companies don’t offer false promises they’re unable to keep and instead allows them to set reasonable expectations. And finally context-specific crisis plans will help guide the course of action to move swiftly, whatever the situation is.

Step 6: Consider distribution channels: Consider how you distribute your crisis messaging, when it is shared with both internal and external stakeholders (oftentimes it should be simultaneously to avoid leaked information) and where it will be most impactful. While press releases – especially for public companies – are a necessary tool, they can read much more formal than other channels. Responses written as a blog post for instance (and where appropriate) can serve as a much more relatable way to address a situation. It’s also important to build targeted media lists with both friendly contacts to reach out to initially, as well as additional key media that you need to target with the information.  

Step 7: Reflect and analyze post-crisis: While a crisis may come to an end, it’s important to reflect on the events that unfolded, how they were handled and improve your strategies and plans if needed. Absorbing those lessons learned and addressing them directly will help ensure that a similar situation is either avoided in the future or is managed much more efficiently and effectively.

Although some crisis situations can challenge even the most seasoned of communications professionals, there are many steps that they can take along with other key executives to help mitigate potential future fall-out and de-escalate could-be disasters. Above all, the most important piece is to be well-prepared and ready for any level of crisis, big or small. By having strategic and thoughtful plans in place that serve as the guiding North Star to address each issue directly, PR and communication leaders will find much more success and less heartache down the line.

Nicole Sullivan