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Beyond Instincts: How to Effectively Communicate During a Crisis

Follow these ten steps before, during and after the drama

In a stressful or frightening situation, fight or flight is an instinctive response, but it isn’t always the best one. Pausing to talk things out — to listen and respond with care — is the more mature and effective choice not only for people but for organizations. Just as the goal of fight or flight is to return to a state of calm, the goal of crisis communication is to return to normal operations quickly and without losing trust.    

Improper communication surrounding a crisis often results in a PR nightmare. This is especially true in today’s fast-paced digital age where news is available on any medium and videos go viral.  

The key to avoiding a PR nightmare is to do careful, smart work now to prepare robust crisis communication strategies for the future. Any company that interacts with the public, stakeholders or the media will benefit from developing a crisis communication game plan and preparing the tools to implement it.   

Moore has adopted several evidence-based best practices over the years. Here are ten of my top crisis communication tips:  

Before the Crisis

  1. Prepare a plan. While crises are unpredictable, you can prepare for likely scenarios. Your plan should anticipate potential crises based on your industry, and all organizations should prepare for a cybersecurity scenario. Good responses result from strategic planning that outlines company goals, identifies target audiences, names a crisis management team, drafts the steps to take when a crisis emerges and provides sample messaging for communication with the public. 

At Moore, we use a variety of tactics, including media and communications audits as well as risk monitoring to help understand what types of challenges can inform high-level crisis communication plans for clients.  

  1. Establish trust. Proactive communication with customers when business is normal can help to mitigate blame or skepticism toward your company during a crisis. Don’t expect to build support when a crisis hits; you need to gain trust by engaging audiences BEFORE the crisis. 

Moore helps clients with this by: 

  • Using social listening and media monitoring
  • Leading stakeholder engagement sessions
  • Researching industry standards
  • Analyzing company strengths, weaknesses, opportunities & threats and more.

During the Crisis

  1. Respond quickly and accurately. Speed matters, but accuracy reigns supreme. Don’t leave your audiences in the dark; tell them what happened in an open, honest way. This is where a crisis communication plan comes to the rescue, providing structure and saving time on crafting messaging from scratch.  

Within days of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Moore began working with the Gulf Oil Disaster Recovery Group to strategically leverage the voices of fishermen and legal, financial and environmental experts. We tapped relationships with state and national media in print, TV and radio to secure more than 800 targeted media hits and conducted multiple community seminars and webinars, giving businesses and residents a chance to meet with experts, voice concerns and get answers.  

  1. Be authentic. Generic apology statements don’t win back trust; they alienate audiences further. Some crises are best handled with humor, like KFC’s newspaper advertisement showing an empty chicken bucket with the chain’s initials scrambled to say “FCK,” alongside an apology. In other cases, a thoughtful apology or even silence might be the best strategic choice.  

When a large group physician practice in North Carolina experienced a widespread compromise of protected private patient information, Moore provided counsel and proactive support to mitigate potential negative coverage and develop internal communications. Following these efforts, local media did not pick up the story, and only 12 patients made further inquiries (which were successfully addressed by staff and leadership with pre-approved messaging).     

  1. Use social media strategically. Monitoring your social media channels can save you from catastrophe because you can correct inaccuracies that may arise. Don’t default to fight or flight when it comes to addressing negative comments online. Moore has the tools to monitor media coverage, analyze consumer sentiment, process & manage information and ensure messaging consistency across channels. 
  1. Take responsibility. You don’t want to be known as the company that plays the blame game. Prioritizing your audiences and stakeholders during a crisis means accepting appropriate responsibility for the inconveniences that they may be experiencing. Don’t look to find a scapegoat; own up to any mistakes.  
  1. Keep employees informed. While external communication is critical during a crisis, transparency with employees is also paramount. Make sure to acknowledge their dedication during the crisis and check in frequently on their stress levels. 

When COVID hit, Moore quickly created messaging and resources for Florida’s more than 14,000 dentists to help them communicate safety protocols and practice updates not just with their patients but also with their staff. This helped ensure all team members were informed, engaged, and equipped with the most up-to-date information and messaging for patient inquiries. It was exactly the kind of fast-evolving support FDA members needed in a crisis. 

After the Crisis

  1. Have a post-crisis strategy. After the crisis, revise the crisis plan based on new learnings. Then, to prevent similar crises from happening in the future, your team needs to reflect on the crisis communication processes that were implemented. Reputation repair and follow-up communication with key audiences can help to ensure full recovery. For example, Moore has guided clients through post-event reputation reporting to identify and assess lingering issues ranging from lack of trust to misperception of company involvement in a crisis. 
  1. Practice internal accountability. Resilient companies come out of a crisis ready to follow through on promises made to customers or the media. Keep your audience updated during the post-crisis stage and demonstrate your commitment to addressing the issues at hand. 
  1. Always remember, the truth wins. As Karen Moore always says, tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth  

Are you anticipating a crisis or uncertain how to respond if one occurs? Caught in a crisis? Uncertain how a crisis has impacted your company? For more than three decades, Moore has helped clients successfully navigate crises spanning industries such as education, workforce, agriculture and the environment, healthcare, travel and hospitality.  

With more APR- and CPRC-certified team members than any other agency in the Southeast, Moore is ready to provide evidence-based strategy throughout every step of the journey. Let us help you move beyond fight or flight.   

Nanette Schimpf, APR, CPRC, is a Partner and Vice President of Moore, leading Crisis Communications and Reputation Management services. You can reach her at [email protected]. 

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