5 Steps to Successful Crisis Communication When Everything Goes Wrong

A roadmap for navigating the unexpected when it happens.

It’s almost certain your organization will be hit with a public relations crisis at some point. When and where that happens is out of your control. But how you respond is.

Here are five simple steps that can help turn an unfortunate situation into a moment where your organization can prove itself under fire.

Step 1: Train your staff to field reporter calls

A PR crisis hits! Your organization receives calls from the press seeking comment. It’s critical that team members are trained and ready.

Here is my recommended team member protocol for inbound calls, email or social media from a reporter:

  • Never provide statements to the media, nor divulge the identities of clients or disclose any business interests, even if unintentional.
  • Have a message prepared. For example, “I am not an authorized spokesperson for our company. I will give your information to my supervisor.”
  • Gather basic information about the caller. Name, media outlet, contact information, and most importantly—publishing deadline.
  • Forward information to supervisors immediately.
  • Once at the C-suite level, immediately loop in your PR firm, they will help manage the crisis, craft a response and designate spokespeople authorized to speak on behalf of your organization.

Photo courtesy Miller Ink.

Step 2: Familiarize yourself with journalistic jargon

On the record: Anything you say to a reporter can be quoted directly.

Off the record: Your statements cannot be quoted, referenced, or used in any way.

On background: If you grant an interview in which you do not want to be quoted, you can request to speak “on background,” which means that the reporter can use what you say for their research, but not cite you directly or indirectly.

For attribution: Granting this type of interview means the reporter can quote anything you say, but not publish your name. In other words, you will likely be referred to as a “high-level official” or a “source close to the matter.”

While not legally binding, violating the parameters of an interview is seen within journalism as a serious offense, and reporters at reputable outlets did not get there by burning sources.

Most reporters ask ahead for permission to record interviews. Say yes. While there are positives and negatives to allowing a recording, more often than not you should do so. It will make your remarks less likely to be taken out of context or misrepresented entirely. Reporters hate corrections, and are highly motivated to get your words exactly right.

Step 3: Practice makes perfection

Responding to a crisis, especially under pressure, comes with a unique set of challenges that can often bring out our worst instincts. You have to practice.

Create a crisis scenario and role play with your employees in real time.

Run crisis drills the same way you run fire drills. This will test your team’s ability to manage any crisis quickly and effectively. Better yet, it will equip them with the ability to act instinctively and remain calm.

Recruit someone from outside of your organization to call as a reporter in search of a statement on client’s affairs or internal news. If you know a retired reporter, even better.

Test individuals most likely to answer incoming calls.

Create a checklist documenting staff performance at every stage of the drill. “I am not an authorized spokesperson for our company, etc.” Did this individual ask for the caller’s name, outlet, contact information and the publication deadline? Was the message forwarded to the correct manager immediately?

Managers who received this request should promptly contact your PR firm—so be sure to alert them ahead of your drill!

Practice these scenarios frequently and unannounced so as to create a real-world experience. Like earthquake drills and fire drills, practice will create the muscle-memory needed to lead an effective response, under duress.

Step 4: Invest in cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is all about prevention.

You and your company’s reputation could be threatened by a stealthy hacker or data breach—just as easily as a mismanaged call from a journalist. Invest in cybersecurity measures to mitigate crises before they wreak havoc on your brand.

Mere minutes can mean the difference between an effective crisis response and a PR nightmare.

There are actionable steps you can take to protect yourself from bad actors online. This starts with taking stock of your own vulnerabilities. Conduct a cybersecurity audit with an expert in the field. Evaluate your system architecture from top to bottom and identify major risk areas, including weak passwords, unprotected Wi-Fi networks, and vulnerable servers.

Your data in the cloud could also be at risk, exposing potential liabilities if not properly secured. Investing in a highly-qualified vendor to implement strong security procedures helps avoid crises before they even occur, saving you time, money, stress and potential reputational damage.

Step 5: Timing is everything

Mere minutes can mean the difference between an effective crisis response and a PR nightmare. Reporters work on tight deadlines and rarely stall publishing while they wait for an official statement. The speed with which you respond is as important as the message you convey.

This is why it’s critical to loop in your company’s PR firm as soon as a media request is placed. PR representatives are a professional resource. Use them to your advantage. The more time stakeholders have to mobilize around a cohesive and thoughtful response, the more likely it is to yield the best possible impact for your company. Follow these five steps, and you’ll be ready when a crisis strikes.

Nathan Miller is is the founder and CEO of the marketing and crisis management firm Miller Ink.

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