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Navigating the Storm: How to handle a crisis

At any given moment, an organization can find itself in an untimely and unexpected crisis – from a job site accident, to executive embezzlement to inappropriate behavior, just to name a few. How you manage the crisis can have a lasting effect on your business and reputation. Are you prepared?

With today’s 24/7 news cycle, along with social media, news spreads like wildfire. A knee-jerk or even a too delayed response to a crisis situation can be detrimental to a business.

A great example of how NOT to manage a crisis is the infamous United Airlines incident where the passenger was being forcibly dragged off one of its planes. The video went viral and the world was outraged. The CEO’s delayed and initial insensitive response only added fuel to the fire. Because the situation wasn’t handled properly, United’s image suffered and stock value dropped.

And it’s not just large, Fortune 500 companies that are at risk. Every business and organization should have a crisis communication plan in place – long before it’s needed – that includes all possible scenarios of what could go wrong, who needs to be involved and key messaging to important audiences and stakeholders.

The effort should be led by your communications team and/or with the support of an outside public relations professional with crisis communications expertise. When devising the strategy, it’s imperative to work with legal counsel and company executives to ensure everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction.

However, if your business is in the midst of a crisis, understand there’s no one size fits all approach. Consider these key points when creating your crisis response strategy.

Assess the situation – Understand exactly what happened and when. Are your sources credible? Who is aware of the situation?

Action – Was your business at fault? What action is your business going to take to make the situation right and rebuild trust among your key target audiences?

Identify Stakeholders – Identify individuals or groups of individuals that will likely be affected or have an interest in this situation, including: board members, executive staff, employees, customers, key influencers, endorsers and critics and news media.

Messaging – Develop messaging for use in media stand-by statements and interviews, employee and stakeholder communication, FAQs, backgrounder documents and more. Whether it’s verbal or written communication, messaging must be clear and consistent.

Media – Monitor news coverage 24/7 to see what’s being reported and determine if and how to respond. Based on strategy, weigh out the pros and cons of taking a proactive or reactive approach to the media.

Timing/Deployment – Prioritize the dissemination of any written or verbal communication. Who do you communicate with first, and when? Remember that silence is toxic, not golden. The longer you are silent, the longer it will take to regain trust.

Spokesperson/Media Training – Identify one company spokesperson and conduct training to be sure the individual is well versed on the situation and comfortable responding to inquiries. Best practice: conduct role-playing and cover possible questions from the media.

Social Media – Monitor social media platforms 24/7 including Facebook and Twitter to get a handle on the “chatter” and gauge the overall issues and concerns. Respond to any comments in a timely manner to demonstrate that you are listening and that you care about the situation. Try to take the individual “offline” if things get heated.

Just remember, you have more control in a crisis than you may think. Your best chance of a successful outcome depends on the communication plan put in place before the crisis occurs. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

About the Author:
Pam Boyd is co-founder and President of Thomas/Boyd Communications (TBC), a full-service strategic communications firm serving well-known businesses and nonprofits throughout the region. TBC has worked with numerous clients to successfully tackle crisis situations head-on and maintain their reputations. 

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