From internal challenges like a product defect necessitating a recall to external events like natural disasters, every organization is vulnerable to crises. While it’s easy to believe that it won’t happen to your company, the question is not if a crisis will happen, but when. A poorly-handled PR crisis can have long-lasting implications that may include strained customer relationships, legal or regulatory action, declining stock prices, and damaged brand reputation.
While it’s nearly impossible to prevent crises from occurring, there are steps you can take to mitigate the fallout. A good company spokesperson is an essential part of any crisis communications strategy. They give your organization both a face and a voice, which helps build trust with your audience on your behalf. However, problems can arise if your spokesperson is unprepared, especially in the midst of a crisis. Here’s how to ensure your company and its spokespeople are prepared.
A crisis will be a surprise. Your response, can’t be. Don’t wait until a crisis hits to put a crisis communications plan together. If you’re scrambling to develop a response as the situation unfolds, you’re already too late. While you can’t know what’s going to happen or when, you should have a plan that includes guidance for your spokespeople when crises arise:
A crisis communication plan is a reference tool for companies and their spokespeople to use during an emergency. It establishes guidelines for how to communicate with the public, employees, and other stakeholders, and puts resources in place for spokespeople to succeed. It identifies the crisis management team, chain of command, messaging, tools to be used to distribute information, and more.
To prepare for a potential crisis, you need to identify the weaknesses in your organization that may cause it. A vulnerability audit should be performed to detect exposure, including an inspection of sites, infrastructure systems, processes, networks, etc. You can identify threats by looking at past events, reviewing industry peers and identifying the specific things about your line of business that may go wrong. You will also want to conduct crisis simulations to test how events might unfold.
The spokesperson you choose to represent your organization plays a crucial role in crisis communications. It’s essential that the person you select has characteristics that will help them excel in the role and convey your message effectively. Traits like strong communication skills, charisma, authenticity, and relatability are all vital. But on top of their personal qualities, they should hold a position of authority in your organization, as audiences place more trust on high-ranking members like senior executives. It is generally regarded as bad practice to a company attorney as a spokesperson, except possibly regarding litigation issues, and while the CEO is often the best person to serve in the role, that should be reserved for when a situation has escalated or is of such significant concern that it merits that level of direct engagement.
Once you’re confident in your choice of spokesperson, they’ll need training to ensure they are able to produce successful media interviews. Professional training will orient them to the role the media plays in a crisis, the subtle differences between different media formats, the type of information that is most important to convey, how to handle difficult questions and how to stay on message, among other key skills.
Proper training must include extensive practice and simulated interviews, including on-camera sessions. Conveying calm, sincerity, control and contrition are all key in the context of a crisis and hitting the right tone requires practice.
To maintain control over the optics of the situation, key messages should be established before your spokesperson engages with the media. As part of your crisis communications strategy, develop a list of talking points and messages that you want to relay to the public. You may not know the outcome of the situation, but it is likely that you know what narrative you want to emphasize in regards to the crisis and your company. These key messages should:
Armed with your key messages, your spokesperson can incorporate these points into their responses in order to control the dialogue and gain a better handle on the story.
Being proactive by communicating to the media first establishes an initial response, which can help you begin to regain trust with the public. It shows empathy, highlights an effort to shed light on the situation, and provides assurance that you’re taking action. It’s far better than allowing another source or media outlet to speak out about the situation before you can, which could paint your organization in a bad light or start rumors. Crises can breed an especially critical audience, so you should take every opportunity to redeem yourself, as the longer you wait, the more damage that can be done.
When communicating in a crisis, it’s important that your spokespeople only speak to the facts of the situation. A crisis is not a time for assumptions, so they should only focus on what they truly know at that moment, not what they think they know. Straying from the facts can lead to speculation, misinterpretation, and a lack of trust in the public eye, not to mention the loss of credibility if you need to publicly walk back any of your statements. Good reputations are built upon truthfulness.
Once the situation has unfolded and the facts have been revealed, your spokesperson and crisis communications team can refine your response to provide the public with the full story. This can help you prevent public perception from spinning out of control.
Even if you are proactive with your response, you’ll still need to keep your finger on the pulse of public sentiment. That means monitoring mainstream media, social media, and any other relevant channels to understand how people are reacting, what they are saying, how they think it should be handled, and beyond. This can help your spokespeople better understand which questions to prepare for, how to answer them, and what to expect when they speak to the media. It can also help you develop strategies for responding to negative social media posts and news reports before they go viral and cause irreparable damage to the organization.
When the public reads “no comment,” the natural assumption is that the spokesperson has something to hide, and may imply that they are guilty. Even if you aren’t prepared to provide a thorough response, try to have some comment. If you give the media nothing, they will likely work harder to get around you for the story, which could increase the chance of them getting it wrong.
On the other hand, be careful about what your spokespeople say to the media; an agreement to keep something “off the record” isn’t legally binding, so you shouldn’t tell the media anything you don’t want to see published.
In intense news cycles and high-pressure media environments, spokespeople can easily become absorbed and exhausted, which can hinder their ability to communicate your message. If the situation allows, plan for spokespeople to take breaks and step back from the spotlight every hour or two. This will allow them to compare notes with the crisis communications team, discuss new developments, and recalibrate priority messages as needed.
Once the crisis has subsided, there are still steps you should be taking to begin rebuilding the public’s trust. It’s important for your spokespeople to follow up on the situation by emphasizing your organization’s response to the crisis, the steps that will be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and the changes your company has undergone as a result of the crisis.
As part of your ongoing crisis communications strategy, you should also conduct an internal post-crisis review to assess whether your plan and response were effective. You should be asking questions like:
It’s a good idea to analyze the fallout while it’s still fresh so that you can begin optimizing your crisis communication plan long before the next crisis occurs.
In the world of crisis communications, being prepared for a crisis before it happens will determine how quickly your company can bounce back. While you may not be able to control the crisis itself, you can control your response, and therefore, the fallout. These tips may seem obvious when you’re not in the middle of a crisis, but being proactive with each of them could be the difference between preventing a crisis or making it worse.
Spokespeople are an essential element of crisis communications. ICR helps companies develop plans, processes, materials, tools, and coaching for company spokespeople. Learn more about how to be prepared for a crisis. Download our Guide to Crisis Communications Planning.