Five Things We Learned about Crisis Communications

Crisis Communications is a lot like fire alarms and seatbelts: you hope you’ll never need any of them, but it would be foolhardy to go without. Responding to a crisis in a timely and honest way could actually raise your organisation’s reputation, but getting a judgement call badly wrong could throw fuel on a fire.

Last week, the WonkComms breakfast club looked at some of the different scenarios – from tax scandals to natural disasters – and how to navigate organisations around stormy seas. We heard from Lizzie Shannon-Little who heads up the global communications team at Oxford Policy Management, followed by a roundtable discussion at Soapbox’s new Whitechapel studios. So here are the five things we took away from last week’s event.

1. It’s not only external communications

The first image that comes to mind about crisis communications is the one we see on our screens: a public relations spokesperson making a statement to a sea of press microphones. While this is part of crisis communications, it’s only one element.

Every single crisis involves communications, because everyone needs to know what’s going on. As well as the journalists and Jo and Joe Public, you’ve also got to think about how and when to communicate with your staff, the board, any contractors, clients and agencies you work with.

You want to make sure people hear things in a timely, proportionate, and compassionate way – and you want them to hear it from you before the evening news. In many cases, getting these more subtle communications steps right will mean you don’t have to run the press gauntlet in your best suit jacket.

2. Be Prepared

What are the most likely crises in your field? Draft appropriate responses to them – what’s your line to the press? What do you tell staff? How do you keep other stakeholders up to date in a way which reassures them?

Odds are slim that everything will turn out exactly as you drill it, but taking a day to think about this every six months or every year means you’ll have the building blocks of a crisis comms plan. Better to have some draft materials to hand than try to build everything from scratch once you’re in a media storm.

You’ll want your senior team media trained. Media training can make people a bit scared and this is probably a good thing: they’ll understand the importance and – heck – it might make them think twice before tweeting something silly.

If you have experienced a crisis: learn from it. Evaluate what went well and identify areas of improvement. Keep responses and statements on file and in a system that the rest of your colleagues can access. Odds are the next crisis will be at 5:00pm on a Friday or when you’re on holiday.

3. Less is more

Not responding publicly could be the smartest thing you do all week. Not every Twitter complaint needs to be dignified with a response, and even fewer need that response to be in public. Get the arguments offline as soon as possible, where you can actually have a discussion. Meanwhile, some media outlets may just want to take a pop at your whole sector. There’s not much to be gained from defending specific aspects of your organisation to outlets who would rather you didn’t exist at all.

A skilled communications professional can gauge when responding too readily can look like guilt, pettiness or troll-feeding. Pick your battles, and don’t be afraid to explain your reasoning to your higher-ups.

4. You can’t do everything

In an ideal world you’d have enough people to split your comms team into internal and external, and have some people in each working solo on the crisis, while the remainder of your team keep the show on the road with all your usual work.

In the real world, though: you might be a comms team of just one or two. Stop, prioritise and delegate. Don’t be afraid to drop all the things that can wait. The fortnightly internal newsletter can go out late. Your response to the broadsheet journalist can’t.

Keep up to date with the comms teams of other organisations you work closely with so you can work together if something happens. (Odds are the bigger the crisis: the bigger the ripples for the whole sector.) Stay in friendly contact with any media agencies so you can draft them in quickly if needed.

And finally…

5 Always ask the obvious question

Do you know what’s worse than asking the obvious question in a meeting? No one asking the obvious question and no one being prepared for it. Maybe everyone assumed someone else had thought of it. Maybe you are actually the only person in the room to consider it. Whichever way it turns out: don’t be afraid to double-check that everything’s covered.

Take notes and assign action points. This will keep you on task when things are going haywire and – afterwards – they will help you unpack what went well and what needs improving on before the next one. Which, of course, could be any time.


If you’ve found this useful you might like to check out the PR week annual conference and this great list by Alastair Campbell. And if you have ideas for future WonkComms breakfast club events, please let us know underneath the line or via LinkedIn

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Posted in breakfast club, Events, Opinion

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