Key Strategies for an Effective Crisis Communication Plan

Business Crisis Management

In the realm of public relations (PR), the specter of crisis is an ever-present challenge that can strike any brand at any moment. Being prepared is crucial, as effective crisis communication can mean the difference between emerging from a problem with minimal harm or facing a significant PR disaster that damages a brand’s reputation for an extended period.

Navigating a crisis is a formidable endeavor, a high-stakes plan where the very existence of an organization hangs in the balance. These situations are unpredictable, defying the creation of a one-size-fits-all communications strategy. Nevertheless, crisis communication remains an indispensable pillar of a comprehensive PR strategy.

So, how do we tame the unpredictable? The journey begins with foresight, as companies identify potential crises proactively, arming themselves with predetermined strategies and tactics. Welcome to the world of crisis communication management, where readiness transforms the unpredictable into the manageable, ensuring that reputation and resilience prevail, even in the face of adversity.

What is Crisis Communication?

A crisis is an event that imperils the public’s safety, an organization’s finances, its reputation, and, most crucially, the interests of its internal and external stakeholders. There are different types of crises, including organizational, technological, rumors, and natural. Crisis communication enables companies to handle problems that significantly impact their operations. Companies with such systems will be equipped to handle the crisis at each stage and lessen its effects on ongoing operations.

Proactive and Reactive Crisis Communication Approaches

The reactive approach involves how a business reacts to the crisis as it arises, whereas the proactive approach is about prevention; it is based on anticipating the crisis before it appears and preventing it from happening.

For example, consider a PR firm representing a tech startup. A reactive PR consultant excels when negative news surfaces about the startup’s product malfunctioning. They swiftly draft a crisis response, address customer concerns, and manage media inquiries to contain the damage.

PR Strategy

Conversely, a proactive PR consultant continuously monitors industry trends and identifies potential issues before they escalate. In this case, they would have recognized the product’s vulnerability, worked with the startup to improve it, and even initiated a preemptive PR campaign highlighting its reliability. As a result, the startup avoids a crisis and strengthens its brand reputation as a forward-thinking and customer-centric company, paving the way for sustained success.

Key Point: Choosing the best approach highly depends on the scenario and the crisis that the company is dealing with. The crisis response team must assess the situation first and determine the best course of action for the business.

The Need for Crisis Communication Strategies

A crisis can cause panic and disorientation. People will only rely on accurate information if timely, efficient communication is available during a crisis. The public requires real, understandable information about the disaster, instructions on what to do and how to do it, and reassurance that assistance is on the way. A complete crisis communication plan is crucial in this situation so that you can assess and take appropriate action.

In the digital era of social media and other online platforms, PR agencies must be alert and proactive in maintaining their clients’ online reputations. If handled hastily and ineffectively, a crisis can quickly go viral and do irreversible harm. Real-time contact with stakeholders, monitoring online debates, and handling potential crises before they escalate are all major components of an effective crisis communication strategy.

When developing a crisis communication strategy, it’s important to consider the period during the crisis and the periods leading up to it and following it.

Navigating the Pre-Crisis Period

Preparing your business for a crisis should happen well in advance. The development of a crisis management plan should be at the forefront of your efforts. Within this plan, you’ll outline the roles and responsibilities of your crisis team.

Key Roles and Responsibilities of the Crisis Communication Team:

  • Detecting the crisis and potential risks associated with it.
  • Preparing an effective crisis management plan.
  • Preparing pre-written communications and forms and compiling a list of established communication channels.
  • Conducting exercises to test the plan’s effectiveness, allowing for necessary adjustments and enhancements.
  • Simulating a crisis scenario at least once a year by researching potential crises that could impact the business, then constructing a timeline of events your team will need to navigate.
  • Communicating the pre- and post-crisis preparations to the employees and motivating them to deal with the crisis and deliver their best.

Handling the Post-Crisis Period

According to the PwC Global Crisis Survey 2019, 19% of businesses faced greater challenges after a crisis, whereas 42% emerged stronger. The key factor enabling business stability during a crisis is preparedness. The communication strategy, along with the communication channel measurement and the pre-drafted message, is mostly reviewed and revised at this stage.

Smart Practices to Proactively Prepare for a PR Crisis

1. Be Transparent and Honest: Acknowledging mistakes can be challenging, whether in small or significant situations. However, when you make a mistake, it’s wise to admit it honestly to prevent more problems later on. Being transparent and truthful about the crisis and providing accurate information to the public and your employees is the best approach.

Case Study 1: In 2018 and 2019, Boeing’s 737-Max faced two devastating crashes, leading to 346 passenger deaths. Initially, Boeing blamed pilot error, but investigators later found faults in the automatic safety systems. It was revealed that the pilots lacked training on these systems, severely damaging Boeing’s reputation.

Boeing 737 max PR case study

Had Boeing followed Lee’s Declaration of Principles by providing accurate information about the system’s flaws, the public response might have been more forgiving, resulting in less harm to public opinion and sales. This crisis highlights the benefits of taking a morally responsible approach for the public and the brand.

2. Effective Messaging Strategies: Show respect to your audience by delivering tailored, transparent, and honest messages. Keep an empathetic and reassuring tone in the message while upholding the organization’s brand integrity and professionalism.

Avoid being defensive and acknowledge the crisis’s impact on all stakeholders. It’s advisable to pre-compose many of these messaging statements and have them ready to deploy. While you can adapt them to the specific situation, preparing them in advance ensures your team is well-prepared and ready to act swiftly.

Case Study 2: In December 2021, Amazon faced criticism following a devastating tornado that struck one of its warehouses in Illinois, resulting in six tragic deaths. The company’s handling of the situation raised concerns when reports emerged of warehouse workers allegedly being compelled to continue working during tornado warnings.

PR Case Study - Tornado destroys Amazon facility on Illinois

Amazon’s delayed public response was their first blunder. Over 24 hours passed before CEO Jeff Bezos addressed the warehouse disaster, offering his sympathies and assistance to the impacted families. However, this delayed response sparked criticism, with many perceiving it as insincere.

In such tragic circumstances, timely and empathetic communication is essential to convey genuine concern and support. The CEO actively shared updates and posts about Blue Origin’s landing throughout the day. As a result, when he finally addressed the tornado tragedy, it appeared to be a secondary concern.

3. Media Relations in Crisis Communication: Being ready for a crisis involves having a grasp of the media landscape. Consider which supportive media can help shape your narrative or provide a platform to express your perspective. Cultivate positive relationships with these outlets as they can assist with online reputation management. Be aware of media sources that thrive on sensational stories to avoid pitfalls. Lastly, establish a robust internal communication strategy.

Case Study 3: In 2018, KFC faced an unexpected crisis when it ran out of its famous chicken, a core aspect of its brand. However, the quick response from KFC’s marketing team, using humorous videos and tweets to apologize and display humility, turned the situation around. This incident underscores the importance of having a crisis communication plan for restaurants, including scenarios like foodborne illnesses, poor hygiene conditions, and delivery-related food supply issues.

How Do You Know If Your Crisis Communication Plan Is Effective?

Is the formulation and execution of the strategy sufficient for handling the crisis? While the strategy itself is crucial, it is equally important to measure the success of the communication plan. Making performance-driven adjustments to your crisis communication strategy is integral to crisis management. Here are two effective methods to gauge the success of your crisis communications:

  • Employee Surveys and Feedback: Your crisis management strategy must be optimized based on the input you get from your staff. Reviewing the effectiveness of your crisis response is a crucial part of the post-crisis phase. You can find out how your employees feel about your crisis management plan in several ways. It’s a common practice to distribute questionnaires to large groups of individuals to collect information. Employees can contribute their opinions and comments while providing your company with thorough details about their personnel through questionnaires.
  • Analyze the Metrics: Measuring the success of global crisis communications can be complex. To overcome this challenge, tracking software provides valuable insights by revealing who has read your messages and who hasn’t, and how employees engage with embedded links, ensuring a more informed assessment of your communication strategy.

Conclusion

Crisis communication is the linchpin of safeguarding an organization’s reputation and credibility. The unpredictability and complexity of crises underscore the importance of a well-thought-out crisis communication plan. Waiting until a crisis strikes can be costly regarding time and resources. Internal communicators need to update and refine their crisis communication strategies proactively.

We value your insights and questions on this critical topic. Please share your thoughts, queries, or experiences in the comments below. For more in-depth insights and strategies on crisis communication, remember to subscribe to stay informed and prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Your proactive approach can make all the difference in preserving your organization’s reputation and resilience.

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