While the current news cycle is focused on a global health issue, crisis situations span the gamut, from workplace accidents to severe weather to product recalls. Communications is a common denominator regardless of the crisis at hand.

Mitigation measures are not enough. Even the most stringent procedures cannot prevent a crisis from inflicting harm on a business’s operations or its reputation. While crises are often unpredictable, considering a communications strategy and protocol before a crisis hits can help companies prepare to manage a crisis.

Sudden or smoldering? Most crises fall into one of two categories: “sudden” or “smoldering.” As the name implies, a sudden crisis arises without warning. Industrial accidents, terrorism, workplace violence and acts of God are all sudden crisis situations. There is little time to prepare for these situations, but because they are often unpreventable and they tend to elicit the public’s sympathy. In contrast, smoldering crisis events generally emerge over time and present problems not generally known that could generate negative sentiment if they become public. Examples of smoldering crisis situations include unusual audit findings, safety violations, board mismanagement or a potential regulatory violations. As opposed to sudden crises, these situations are rarely viewed positively.

A crisis management plan can help manage both types of crisis. The plan should outline a strategy for assessing vulnerabilities, identify a central spokesperson to deliver all messages and include specific messages that can be shared with stakeholders. While the details of a crisis management plan are beyond the scope of this column, every crisis management plan requires stakeholder communications. When crafting crisis communications, three “best practices” can be applied to most situations. These practices are:

1. Tell the truth

Rarely are all of the facts readily available during a crisis and they cannot always be shared. Trade secrets, confidentiality agreements and legalities limit what can be disclosed. As such, it can be tempting to refrain from making any statement. But evasiveness naturally breeds suspicion. While organizations should never speculate, they can share the truth about what they are doing. For example, during an industrial accident a spokesperson can say, “While the causes of  the incident are still being investigated, we are cooperating with first-responders and safety authorities on-site.”

The “why” plus “what” approach is a very useful technique for communicating without speculating or refraining from comment. Spokespersons explain “why” they cannot elaborate and follow up with “what” they can share. For example: “While I can’t speculate about the root cause, what I can tell you is (approved statement).”

2. Tell it fast and with empathy

Not only is it important to tell the truth quickly, but it is important to be empathetic. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska, is a good example of the damage that can arise when timeliness and empathy are lacking in communications. The organization’s former chief executive, Lawrence Rawl, waited an entire week to address media following the oil spill. When the executive did speak in a TV interview, he delivered a strong impression that he didn’t really care about the environmental impact of the disaster, committing a huge PR cardinal sin – lack of empathy.

More than 20 years later (Google “Tony Hayward get my life back,”) BP former CEO Tony Hayward conducted a number of high quality media interviews before lamenting halfway through an conversation with a reporter, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” His comment demonstrated a lack of sympathy for the 11 lives lost and the hundreds of jobs lost due to the incident. Unlike the Exxon leader’s interview, BP’s situation unfolded in the social media era, amplifying the damage of the negative PR as the unfortunate interview was shared digitally.

In every crisis, it is imperative to think like a customer and communicate like a customer. This means putting oneself in the customer’s shoes and actively acknowledging customers’ fears and frustrations. In stark contrast to the corporate speak of a prepared statement, empathy acknowledges that the company feels and shares the customer’s pain.  The best examples also provide perspective by framing the issue in context. For example, “Each year, our operations produce XX MT without incident.”

3. Tell employees first 

Despite all the efforts companies invest in developing messages for their website and official statements, a company’s people are usually the most sought-after and trusted source of information. Thus, in crisis situations, it is a company’s people who will receive questions from customers, friends and family about what’s “really” taking place. Employees must be a key audience in any crisis management plan. The internal communications plan should educate employees on the issue and provide clear information on how to direct inquiries to the appropriate spokesperson.

Whether sudden or smoldering, the crisis communications best practices outlined above can help companies navigate challenging situations.

Susan Miller is director of public relations at 5MetaCom, a marketing agency for business-to-business companies selling technical and scientific products.

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