There are few things as frightening, potentially damaging and as misunderstood as a crisis. Here are five things about crisis communications that may be counterintuitive but are absolutely true:
- You probably don’t have a working crisis communications plan. In my experience, only about 25 percent of businesses have a legitimate crisis communications plan, and about half of those plans are out of date. They don’t reflect current business operations, and likely reference key personnel who have already left the company. That means that only about 12-13 percent of companies are truly prepared for a crisis.
- No one is following the crisis as closely as you are. Executives seek out every media article to get a sense of how a crisis is playing out publicly. Unfortunately, a side effect is that these executives often assume that customers, partners and even the general public are equally aware of what is going on. That absolutely is not the case. I helped a university handle an enormous crisis issue that played out prominently in media outlets coast-to-coast – the Today Show, The New York Times, NBC Nightly News, NPR, CNN and others. Executives thought they were in the eye of a hurricane, but research we conducted 45 days later found that only about 30 percent of state residents were aware of the issue. Demand for people’s attention is high and attention spans are short.
- When it comes to media, it’s just business – it’s not personal. Executives of companies going through a crisis almost always feel the media coverage is excessive and unfair, and assume that reporters have it out for them. The truth is that members of the media chase stories that they think are interesting or important. It is very rarely personal with the media. Want to get reporters to change their coverage? Find a better, more interesting angle to share with them.
- The crisis isn’t over when it is over. At the most basic level, there are three stages to crisis communications: preparing for a crisis, dealing with a crisis, and recovering from a crisis. Too many companies forget about the final stage – they are just happy it is resolved and fail to follow through on the critical final component. That is a mistake. As an example, Toyota and Penn State both had brutal crises in the past five or six years. But you probably don’t think of the crisis first when you think of Toyota, and that is because it has dedicated time and resources after the crisis to reposition the company in customers’ eyes.
- Having lawyers and PR practitioners working hand-in-hand will result in the best response to a crisis. The role of lawyers is to keep a client from being sued out of business, and the role of PR is to make sure the client doesn’t go out of business because customers abandon it. If either side doesn’t do its job, the company fails. Unfortunately, too often lawyers and PR experts do their jobs in isolation. My best experiences have been to negotiate with the lawyers ahead of time on strategy, tactics and language, and then present a unified recommendation to the CEO.
Jeremy Story is a Vice President at GroundFloor Media, where he co-leads the firm’s Crisis, Reputation and Issues Management practice. He has more than 20 years experience helping companies ranging from start-ups to the Fortune 100 prepare for, manage and recover from crisis issues.