Crisis communications is often seen as the ‘scary’ part of PR and can be made out to be more complex than it needs to be. The coronavirus pandemic has brought a sharp focus onto the benefits of having a proper crisis strategy in place in order to be in a position to manage the situation and then move forward to recovery and renewal. At a time when many businesses require a clear and concise crisis response, we have answered some of the most frequently asked questions we receive below.

Q. What counts as a ‘crisis’?

A. Not everything that goes wrong is a ‘crisis’, it may just be a brand ‘issue’. The danger is that you can easily over-react when an issue arises or is picked up by media, and instead of resolving the problem, you draw attention to it. Fundamentally, a crisis is something that seriously threatens the brand’s reputation and future.

Q. How quickly do you need to engage with media in a crisis?
A. It is important to react quickly, even if the initial step is to arrange a holding call with the journalists who have reached out to the brand for more information. This will buy you time to finesse brand messaging and responses across the company, as well as to ensure that facts and figures are accurate.

Stick to best practice when dealing with the media and keep your word. If you promise to call them back in an hour, then make sure you do – even if you don’t have an update for them. It also pays to show an understanding for their situation and ask what deadlines they are working to, what they know so far and what information would be of use to them.

Transparency is key. If you don’t know the answer, then say so but promise to do what you can to get clarity. Once you have the answers, share information equally among the media that are involved – this is not a time for exclusives. Instead, keep your communications with key media consistent with a limited number of key messages. Remember, journalists are rarely out ‘to get you’, they’re just doing their job.

Q. What are journalists most commonly after during a crisis?
A. Journalists typically need the same information they’d be after if a news release was to be issued by the brand, i.e. statements from key spokespeople, facts, figures and the most up to date information. It won’t always be possible to get all of these aspects signed-off and sent to the journalist, but it’s good to have a mental checklist as to what you should aim to prepare for media should a crisis hit.

In a crisis, journalists will often pin their articles around three main areas: action, behaviour, and reputation. To prepare for this, you need to think about how you will answer the following questions:

  • What action is being taken?
  • Who is responsible?
  • Are they being truthful?
  • What damage has been done to the company?
  • How will it be fixed?

Ideally a brand will have appointed a key spokesperson within the company, who is media trained so can communicate clearly and concisely in what might be a relatively high-pressure situation. This person should be someone at a senior level in the company, who is consistent, a good communicator and knowledgeable on the situation. A bad performance with the media during a crisis can make the situation even worse. Don’t worry too much about status at this stage, instead, now is the time to make sure you get your message across, so if your most senior members aren’t right for the task, consider communication officers, PR teams or Director-level members.

Q. How transparent do you need to be during a crisis?
A. Transparency is key; if you’re not completely honest initially then it can turn a delicate situation into something bigger than it needs to be and potentially harm your brand.

I recently watched the Netflix documentary ‘Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened’ and there are plenty of lessons that can be learnt from this, including the need to be prepared for a crisis. But, the biggest standout for me was the overwhelming dedication of the Fyre team, trying to make the event a success, even when it was clear the only result will be failure. And that constant denial and lack of transparency with stakeholders and attendees, clearly didn’t help in this situation. There were several points when team members advised that the event should be cancelled, but they were rebuked, ignored or struck-off. That was the crucial moment for me, instead of dealing with a potential situation – the cancelation of an event – the team faced a full-on crisis when safety of attendees was under threat and expectations were far from met.

Q. How frequently should you update your crisis communications plan?
A. A crisis plan, once approved internally, can be updated on a rolling basis but it’s essential to diarise rehearsals, run-throughs and scenario planning at least once a year to stress-test the plan and that ensure that staff are reacting according to agreed instructions.

This doesn’t have to be a full-scale operational rehearsal – it could be a desk-top exercise. For this to work, it is essential that staff know the wider company structure, who needs to be involved and have access to up-to-date lists mobile phone numbers and out-of-office hours contact details.

Q. We saw how one photo of cheese and bread exposed the truth of Fyre Festival, what impact has social media had on crisis communication?
A. Social media has changed everything. A crisis can start on social media and spiral out of control very quickly; the whole world can have an opinion on your company within seconds.

While you can’t be in control of what everyone is saying about your company on social media, you do need to ensure your company’s voice is out there and heard. Gone are the days of formal statements. Narrative needs to be kept clear, simple and consistent, adapting the message for the channels being used and remaining true to brand personality and style.
Occasionally, brands will find their reaction in a crisis can actually work positively for them. Take KFC for example, who gave what PR Week called a ‘masterclass in crisis communication’ when it ran out of chicken in 2018, with a humorous, apologetic explanation which suited its audience perfectly.

Q. How can davies tanner help you?
A. If you want to find out more about how you can better manage a crisis, or have some questions of your own for us, then please do get in touch.