By Justin Nyquist
When a crisis occurs, how you handle it will mean the difference between regaining confidence and trust with your stakeholders or losing ground that you may never get back. JFK summed up a crisis perfectly when he said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of sitting in on a crisis communication and media training session that two of my colleagues presented to a client. If a crisis ever does occur, and reporters show up on their front doorstep, that client is prepared to calmly and confidently address that crisis. That session opened their eyes and mine to the dramatic difference between being prepared or simply reacting to the unthinkable and letting the moment seize you. With this session in mind, here are a few of the key takeaways every organization should consider:
- If you don’t have a crisis communication plan in place, start now: Arguably the most crucial aspect of managing a crisis is making sure the correct information gets released to the proper people, in a timely manner while staying on message with the facts known at the time. It may seem morbid to forecast everything that could go wrong and how you would react, but it will ultimately provide a sense of security throughout your organization that you are ready for the worst.
- Designate and defer: Establishing an official spokesperson or spokespeople is critical. Every employee should know who that spokesperson is and understand that this contact is the only one who should be speaking to the media and the public on behalf of the organization. Misinformation spreads when those with limited or incomplete information share it without considering the consequences. And one need only look at the Newtown shootings or the Aurora Dark Knight Rises chaos to see how innocent people get caught up in an event they have no control over or often involvement in.
- Stick to the facts. Don’t speculate: Only information that is double-checked and verified should be shared. While there will be a push to break the latest news, the end audience will understand the fluidity of a crisis event and that you will share information as it is available. Of course factual accuracy does not rest solely on the shoulders of the journalist. Correct reporting also relies on the shoulders of every communications professional. Any communication, whether it be a news release or an email needs to be double and triple checked for errors before they are sent out.
One of the most notable examples that not only impacted one of our local companies but its worldwide operations was the passing of Steve Appleton just over a year ago. This was definitely the unthinkable, however the leadership and communication team were dedicated to sharing information carefully and respectfully throughout the process from his passing to the leadership change and beyond. Disclosure: Micron is a Red Sky client.
More recently, I witnessed a few police officers (from an unnamed police department) handle accusatory questions perfectly that prevented any potential crisis before it started. I witnessed a couple of college students with a video camera approach some police officers and ask them questions about department policy. The students were obviously trying to taunt the officers into saying something scandalous on camera. The officers calmly and repeatedly directed the students to the department spokesperson by giving a name and number.
While this was nowhere near the level of a crisis, a controversial statement captured on camera could turn into a media firestorm in short order. This is a perfect example of what happens when people are properly trained and know who should manage inquiries. Nobody will publish a clip of someone merely stating the spokesperson’s name and contact information – that’s not newsworthy. Unfortunately this is how misinformation spread about the identity of the shooter in the Sandy Hook shooting because others beyond the designated police spokesperson shared incomplete and unconfirmed information.
Remember that the line between crisis and opportunity is a fine one. When presented with the unthinkable, it is best to have a plan in place that everyone is ready to follow so that you can overcome the challenge and move forward.