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Crisis comms: preparing for the worst case scenario

February 25 2019

A picture showing a woman looking stressed at her laptop.

Crisis communications – the very name suggests panic, being on the back foot, and trying to stay in control of a difficult situation.

But it needn’t be that way – at Pay as you PR we help organisations to prepare for crises, not just so they can deal with them if and when they come, but because we believe preparing for a crisis actually helps to make one less likely.

There will always be unexpected things in life, but if you know your business or charity, and the environment you operate in, you should be able to anticipate most problems that could come your way.

What constitutes a crisis? Well, different problems will worry different people in different ways, but really we’re talking about anything that threatens your reputation, and in turn your sales or support. It could be a damning review on social media that gets lots of attention, an accusation of misconduct, or an accident that happens on your premises.

Like most things in life, preparation is key, and these tips should help stand you in good stead.

Have template responses ready

When something happens, it’s important to respond straight away. The exact response will depend on the circumstances but it helps to have templates in place, which you should be able to create if you have thought about the potential problems you might face.

Responding quickly can take the heat out of a situation, prevents other people from filling the space with their own speculation, and allows you, rather than other people, to take charge of the narrative.

In many cases, you won’t be able to give a full and frank account straight away, as you’ll need to look into what has happened. In this situation, a holding statement, which gives the facts as you currently know them with a promise of more information as soon as it is available, would be best.

If your response includes a press release for journalists, you’ll want to include certain background information about your organisation and, again, this is something you can have prepared in advance.

Rushing to respond to a problem is not the time at which you should have to start pulling together the basics.

It’s also useful to know where you would issue your response. If the problem has originated on social media, that should be the first place you respond, followed by other channels such as your website and perhaps a press release.

Make sure the team knows their roles

If you are a sole trader, then you’ll be thinking the only team dealing with a crisis would be me, myself and I. You’ll be responsible for drafting statements, handling requests for information and, if necessary, doing interviews.

In that case, you’ll want to think if you have all the tools you need to do this. If you don’t think you would be confident handling a problem alone, who do you need to bring on board to help? When time is critical, it’s better to have made those decisions about who to contact ahead of time, rather than working it out in the moment.

If you are part of a team, it’s important to know who is responsible for what during a crisis. The level of crisis might determine whether it is the owner / CEO / director who is behind the response, or perhaps someone lower down the hierarchy.

This in itself can give an impression of how seriously an organisation is taking a problem – though it can also help you to give the impression it is not as big a deal as some people might think. This is something you’ll need to consider when you are planning how you will respond.

Of course, for much smaller organisations, there will be fewer layers to the team and perhaps less options. Either way, if the person who would be the public face of the organisation during this time doesn’t feel confident, it might be worth looking at some media training so they do.

Don’t expose yourself to more trouble

You’ll have seen many examples of people, particularly MPs and celebrities, getting into trouble because someone has dug into their past, particularly on social media, and brought old comments and conversations to light.

It’s important to know that if something did happen, you don’t expose yourself to further scrutiny by having things in the public domain that will make you look worse.

It’s a good idea to keep on top of it anyway, but make sure there is nothing on your website or in your social media accounts that would be embarrassing if someone dragged it up now.

And be mindful of this going forward.

Nip it in the bud

Most potential problems can be headed off with the right initial response. For example, if someone attacks you on social media, ignoring it and hoping nobody else will notice, or, worse, attacking them back, is not going to do you any favours.

Increasingly, people choose social media as their medium for complaining to organisations over, for example, just sending an email. There’s a perception, sometimes true, that they’ll get a quicker or better response because it has been made public.

If someone does challenge you publicly, it’s important to acknowledge it publicly, but then try and take the conversation to a private forum, either to send you an email or to talk over private messages. Don’t just think about the person you are dealing with, but other people who will see the message too.

It’s important you come across as professional and helpful. In fact, even if the complaint makes you look bad, the way you react to it on a public forum might leave more of an impression on other people watching than the original comment.

If something does hit the fan

As I mentioned in the introduction, being mindful of all of the above will help to lower the risk of a crisis happening, because you’re more likely to ward off problems before they become problems, and you’re mindful of what is being said about you and where.

However, you may be unlucky and find yourself at the centre of a small storm. In that case, my advice would be don’t panic (which is easier said than done), but to break the problem down into manageable chunks, and prioritise them into the order they need dealing with. Most things are not as bad as they first appear, so don’t be tempted to try and cover up a mistake – it will more than likely come back to bite you in the bum!

People appreciate honesty – if you’ve ever given an immediate, hold-my-hands-up, no excuses, apology straight away, you’ll know how much it takes the wind out of someone who is gearing up to give you both barrels.

Do make apologies authentic though; how many times do you hear people say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which really means, “It’s you who decided to react this way, not me that caused it.”

Knowing when to ask for help

My final tip is about knowing when doing all of the above, and handling your own response to a situation, just isn’t enough. The beauty of taking of the time now to work out what you would need, is you will soon realise that you wouldn’t actually be able to deal with it properly.

So, if you do need outside help, don’t be afraid to ask for it, and have it lined up for the crucial time. It could be legal help you need, or it could be someone to specifically deal with protecting your reputation.

Finally, if you do have problems, learn from them. As much as you might want to forget about something awful that has happened, do go over the process – how you responded and whether that was effective or not. That way, should you have the misfortune of something else happening, you’ll be much better equipped to deal with it.

By Hannah Upton

Next steps

Pay as you PR can help you prepare for potential problems and step in if you have a sudden crisis where your reputation is at stake. Get in touch to find out more.

We have more advice on bossing your PR and marketing on our blog.