Communicating in a crisis: Keep it simple

When the tweets hit the fan and the media arrives on your doorstep, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. A laundry list of tasks begins screaming through your head at a million miles per hour. You consult your crisis communications plan — likely a thick binder — and begin to feel faint. Where to begin?

Start with the source

First, identify the issue as best you can. Start with the source and then begin to collect as much information as possible. Once you know enough, begin to develop a response plan built around one over-arching goal. That goal should answer a simple question: What are you trying to accomplish in this situation? Are you correcting misinformation? Are you protecting your company’s reputation, your customers, or employees? Establish this first, then build your message platform, strategies and tactics with that goal in mind.

Stick with the plan

Now comes the hard part. You’ve alerted your executive team. You’ve briefed the legal department. Guess what? They have some pretty strong opinions about what to say and how to say it. The legal department stuffs your media statement with barely coherent legalese. Your CEO demands you mention a completely unrelated initiative because it makes the statement sound better (but actually makes it worse). Meanwhile, the reporters are following up wondering where that statement is and the negative tweets just keep on coming. This is where it pays to have the trust and respect of your leadership team, because it’s time to push back and remind everyone of that simple goal you started with. The result can be the difference between a major airline releasing a statement apologizing for having to “re-accommodate” a passenger who suffered serious injuries while being removed from one of their planes, versus releasing a straightforward 10-point plan for preventing a similar situation from ever happening again.

Think fast…and slow

This seems obvious enough, but in the heat of the moment, it’s never so easy. A corporate communications professional must have the unique ability to move at light speed, yet think slowly enough to consider the likely ramifications of the company’s responses. They must be able to “keep it simple” when the situation is at its most complicated. And, most importantly, they’ve got to be able to keep everyone on message and working toward that simple goal. It’s easy to lose focus when the stakes are high and the pressure is on. Keeping the team focused is job number one for any communications professional. As communication channels continue to proliferate and information continues to move faster and faster, these skills will only become more important.