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How to Communicate in a Crisis – 10 Simple Steps

When things go wrong, the world hears about it within minutes.

A combination of 24-hour radio and TV news and rampant social media has seen to that.

If it’s our personal or business reputation at stake, that can leave us feeling that an already bad situation is about to spiral out of control.

With the right Crisis Management Plan in place, we take control of the airwaves and cyberspace, before they take control of us.

We’ve rehearsed everything from terrorist-related incidents to oil spills to radioactive leaks with clients over the years.

We come up with the same plan of action to take back that control each time.

It’s a formula that works.

Here are 10 steps that will help you regain control in a crisis:

1.  Establish the facts

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - camera

It was rumours that led Sky News to report the “death” of the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi.

Real Radio then reported the news, assuming it was correct.

Soon after, both outlets were embarrassed to learn he was still alive.

Make sure you ask questions such as “who, what, why, where, when and how”.

They’ll help you get to the facts of the matter.

It’s vital to separate facts from opinions, claims and rumours.

2. Separate public from private information

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - Social media

It’s vital to know what we’re able to say, rather than just saying everything.

Company policy may have an influence on that.

The law will too.

Choose who you trust to share the information with others.

Brief them fully on what forms of communication you’ll be using.

Will you feed local radio with updates?

Is there a website or social media feed with accurate information for concerned relatives?

3. Get on the front foot

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - Michelle Bachmann

Tell what you can say as fully and as soon as you can.

In a crisis, rumours spread faster than a bad smell.

The enemy here is misinformation, rather than “the media”.

Get the right information out as quickly and a fully as possible.

Rather than hold back on detail, give out as much as you’re able to – as soon as you can.

4. Consider your audience

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - David Brent

Always lead with what’s in it for each audience.

In comic fashion, David Brent decided to lead with the “good news” of his own promotion before hitting staff with the “bad news” of their redundancies.

It’s human nature that we see the world through our eyes and focus on what’s in it for us.

But we need to see it through the audience’s eyes.

So when announcing the intention to lose jobs, tell the audience up front why you’re meeting.

If someone has been badly hurt or killed, that’s the first thing to say.

Break the worst news first as it affects the audience first.

5. Regret, reason, remedy

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - emails

When the identity of nearly 800 HIV-positive was accidentally leaked from a London clinic via email, one word failed to emerge from the communication to patients.

Those affected were emailed to be told “we apologise”.

Saying the word “sorry” is far more effective – and will help you rebuild trust with your audience.

When things have gone wrong, say sorry…with Regret, Reason and Remedy.

For decades, legal advice said avoid saying sorry – in case you admit liability.

Now lawyers often advise to empathise first, using the word ‘sorry’.

There’s a huge difference between saying you’re sorry that something has happened – and saying you’re sorry to have caused it.

Employing Regret, Reason and Remedy is how we suggest to our clients – on media training or crisis management courses – that they deal with the situation.

Regret: “I’m sorry to say there’s been an accident on the site this morning, in which one of our colleagues was injured.”

Reason: “It happened when two vehicles were in collision at around 0900”.

Remedy:  “We’re currently investigating and co-operating fully with the Health and Safety Executive – to find out exactly what happened.”

6. Get the wording right

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - Malaysia Airlines

When Malaysia Airlines Flight QZ8501 crashed in the Java Sea in December 2014, chief executive Tony Fernandes flew to Indonesia to show solidarity with the families.

He told the gathered media:

“We owe it to the families and crew that we learn from this and get better”.

Finding your way through the toughest of times separates those determined to learn from a situation, from those who crumble under the circumstances.

Keep it simple – and stay positive and optimistic in all language.

Bad things happen.

It’s how we deal with them that’s within our control.

Having a positive mind-set leads to making positive statements – based on how to recover or learn from the situation.

Meanwhile, keep descriptions simple – so everyone can follow what you’re saying.

7. Show commitment

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - Winston Churchill

Avoid watering down your language.

Many talk of “trying” to find out what had gone wrong or being “hopeful” of getting to the root cause.

The audience will doubt your strength of character.

If you’re determined or committed to find out what went wrong, it sends out a clear message.

AS Britain’s wartime PM Sir Winston Churchill put it:

“Do not tell me you will try – tell me it is done”.

8. Answer questions directly

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - Union flag

Always give direct answers to direct questions.

Evasiveness suggests weakness or even deviousness.

A stream of politicians made statements immediately after Brexit – then walked away from the microphone with reporters’ questions ringing in their ears.

So it was OK to make statements – but questions appeared too challenging.

We need to ask ourselves what we believe the worst critic in the audience will ask – then prepare an answer to that.

Only then are we ready to face questions.

But they must be answered directly when the question demands…with a “yes”, “no”, I don’t know” or “it’s too early to say” start…before developing our point.

9. Keep across the news

How to Communicate in a Crisis - Pink Elephant Communications - Berlin Wall

The story of Gunter Schabowski makes a great case study into the effects of failing to keep across the news.

In November 1989, Socialist Party spokesperson Schabowski announced to the world’s media that the East Berliners would be able to cross into West Germany “immediately, without delay”.

He was effectively ending the 42-year partition between East and West Germany, between the Soviet bloc and the west.

The news echoed around the world – despite the fact that only a select few were eligible to cross the wall under the new rules.

A melee emerged at the wall as the news hit listeners across Eastern Europe, which ultimately led to the gates being opened.

Within 24 hours, the wall had fallen, all because of misinformation.

Make sure you keep across changing information and reaction to your news.

We need to monitor a changing situation and know how people are reacting.

That will allow us to act rather than react…or worse still, over-react.

10. Update information regularly

About Social Media - Pink Elephant Communications - Chinese Whispers - SM 2

Keep updating regularly – and manage expectations about progress.

It’s tempting to feel if you’ve posted something on social media that you can go to bed, and all will be fine in the morning.

To control future reaction, you need to keep updating the situation.

Most of us have felt infuriated by the lack of information that follows an announcement of a delayed flight.

Simply updating what’s known every five or ten minutes would re-assure passengers that they’re up-to-date with information.

It’s OK to repeat what little information you have – as long as you say you’ll add more when you have it.

But avoid being ‘bounced’ into making a time commitment that you then fail to keep.

Suddenly, the bad situation stops being about the circumstances and starts being about your mishandling of them.

These rules apply as much to our personal life as they do our business life.

Remember, life can deal us an ugly hand – but it’s how we play it that matters more.

Bill McFarlan is managing director of media training and presentation skills training firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit: Sean MacEntee via Foter.com / CC BYLaurentBertrais via Foter.com / CC BY; hannibal1107 via Foter.com / CC BYultrahi via Foter.com / CC BY-SA; Photo credit: Book Worm Laser & Design via Foter.com / CC BY; Gage Skidmore via Foter.com / CC BY-SA; Free Grunge Textures – www.freestock.ca via Foter.com / CC BY; MyFWCmedia via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

26th August 2016 Featured in: Blog By:

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