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Guiding Principles for Effective Communication in Times of Crisis

By Katie Vroom | On July 27, 2020

Crisis Communications: It is the one tool in every PR professional’s arsenal that they hope they never have to rely on but better make sure is 100% up to the task, should it ever be needed.

My colleague recently wrote a blog post: Building a Strong Crisis Communications Strategy: 7 Steps to Consider that takes a step-by-step look at what to consider before, during and post-crisis. This got me thinking – while there is certainly a multitude of steps that go into developing a crisis plan, what are some of the general rules of thumb that apply across the board that a good crisis comms professional can rely on?

I recently participated in a webinar in which Matt McKenna, Former Senior Advisor to President Clinton and Former of Head of Communications at Uber, identified the 9 most important rules for crisis communications. In the session, he also covered how to always be prepared for a crisis, communicate through it and uphold an organization’s trust, credibility and reputation in the process. When you take a step back, many of these points may seem intuitive but it was good reinforcement to hear from someone who has been through challenging scenarios and come out on the other side.

A few of the rules of thumb he included were:

  1. What You Think Happened, Probably Happened: While this may seem simple, it is an important rule. Remember to trust your instinct and don’t defend the unknown because the most likely scenario is often the correct version.
  2. Facts Don’t Need Spin: Spin in PR went out with The West Wing. Everyone with the Internet/Twitter is now a potential reporter or source and there are just too many to be able to spin or hide the facts. There is a renewed premium being placed on transparency so addressing the issue directly and honestly is the only way forward.
  3. Bad Things Happen on Weekends, Holidays and When the Weather is Nice: I thought this was particularly interesting as Matt noted there is data to back this up. While you can staff up for big events when a crisis is more likely to occur, (i.e. Walmart staffs up their team around Black Friday), there are many times when the crisis will break and you don’t hear about it until the next morning or when you get back to the office on Monday morning. The time between the initial action and response increases the number of variables that could go wrong. It is critical to gather information quickly (but completely) and be prepared to respond as soon as possible.
  4. We All Do Windows, We All Do Floors: Essentially, no one is too experienced or senior to be above certain tasks. When things go wrong, everyone must chip in – whether it is writing the first draft of a statement, calling a news director on the weekend etc. – the only way out is through and that requires all hands on deck until the issue is resolved. If you think back to the BP oil spill and the CEO being quoted as saying “I would like my life back” in the middle of a horrendous environmental crisis, it became a defining moment for the company – and not in a good way.
  5. Don’t Answer Questions Based on Speculation: Target learned this one the hard way during its data breach. The company was quick to comment on the severity of the hack before it had gathered all of the information. While Target attempted to set the tone early, in the end the scope of the breach was more than twice what was initially expected, and the misinformation made the situation quite a bit worse. It probably goes without saying, but while it is important to act quickly and at least address a situation, you can always say, “I will get back to you on that” once proper details are confirmed.  
  6. The Media May Be a Terrible Lens Through Which to Tell Your Story: This one runs counter-intuitive for many PR teams. It is important to remember that the media want something from you and you want something from them, and it is almost never the same thing. If you want to tell a story, there are 100+ different ways to do it. Companies still believe they can write/control the story and if that is the end goal, going directly through the press may not be the best avenue, especially in times of crisis.

Matt’s presentation covered a lot more ground, including how not to get quoted on things you want to keep out of the press and knowing your CEOs ability before sending them into the line of fire. While a crisis breaking out is always a time of chaos, remembering some of these basics, in tandem with having a strategic plan in place ahead of time, can help you navigate the issue and mitigate the possible damage.

Katie Vroom

Katie is a Senior Account Director at Affect with over 10 years of public relations experience. Her expertise includes the oversight and execution of strategic PR efforts for clients across a variety of industries including security, healthcare, financial services / fintech, transportation & logistics, IT and more. Katie is a media relations enthusiast who loves finding new ways to introduce her clients to relevant reporters and publications, increasing their share of voice and developing mutually beneficial relationships with reporters. As a Senior Account Director, she is responsible for setting PR strategy to help clients meet their business objectives and providing strategic counsel to ensure PR initiatives deliver consistent ROI. Prior to joining Affect, she worked at Brainerd Communicators in NYC, where she led PR activities for a professional services firm spanning multiple industries.