Guiding Principles for Managing Risk and Crisis Communications
By Judi Nardella Hershman
Digital media has rendered time and distance moot in terms of managing a crisis. Whether it is adverse business news, the arrest or addiction of a celebrity or political figure, or a natural or man-made disaster—reporting is virtual, viral and can be unrelenting. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and traditional outlets now provide 24/7 coverage that can send information around the world in the blink of an eye and launch investigations and litigation.
Unfortunately, when a crisis occurs there is little time to think, let alone to develop a plan to effectively inform, correct, or apologize. Without an up-to-date strategy in place, it is easy to become overwhelmed by rapidly unfolding events which can lead to public, governmental, and media scrutiny that you may not be able to respond to quickly.
The first bastion of defense in dealing with this ever-evolving environment is preparation and a good swat team approach. However, if your crisis makes its way into media headlines and stays there for an extended period of time, it is most likely because your communications efforts are failing. The following principles should help you determine if you are in a state of readiness to manage both foreseeable and unforeseeable events that could derail your business or career.
- Begin with a risk/crisis communications infrastructure that has identified your vulnerabilities and offers solutions to any foreseeable threat--and do this before you are forced to by an event. Re-evaluate annually, at the very least.
- Develop and train a ready team, with back-up members, to identify and manage risk and crises. Replace them as they move on and train new members immediately.
- Strong, visible leadership is imperative to survival. The leader must lead, and if that person cannot, he/she should move out of the way and allow someone who can.
- Don’t ignore early warning signs that a threat is imminent. It truly is better to be safe than sorry.
- Put people and safety first and foremost--and never put personal interests above public responsibility.
- Be responsive and keep in mind that bad news does not get better with time. Inform stakeholders of your actions and intended actions. Make personal contact with key influentials in your community and advise them as well, because without hearing your story, they will share the one they have read.
- Be reliable. Gather accurate, verifiable information quickly to help make sound decisions. Keep a running list of your accomplishments. Often, when in crisis mode, people and organizations forget what they have achieved.
- Tell the truth. Your reputation will depend on it.
- Do not improvise, speculate, or guess when you do not know the answer to a question. Say you do not know—but will find out. Otherwise, if you are wrong, your credibility will be destroyed.
- Make a commitment to “not rest until you get things right” and give clear explanations about how you intend to do that.
- Speak in an explanatory fashion. Avoid jargon, statistics, and words your primary audience(s) will not understand.
- Monitor the media, including social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, but do not allow the media to force you into a decision that you are not prepared to make.
- Assume that everything you say may find its way to the press. You have limited control over what others say or the media reports—you do, however, have 100% control over what comes out of your mouth.
- The public is forgiving, but they will not tolerate arrogance, indifference, gross incompetence, or greed. It is easier to retain trust than it is to regain it.
- Cultivate third party alliances, governmental links, and media relationships when you don’t need them, as it is nearly impossible to do so when you do need them.
- It is not enough to be factually and scientifically correct: You must be able to express concern and compassion. Saying you are sorry that someone or something has been hurt is not admitting guilt.
- Government and media expand their roles in a crisis episode if there is a perception that the organization is failing in its responsiveness or not being forthright. You can watch your problem grow from the talk of one town to that of 50 states and beyond in the click of a mouse.
- Allow for candid public and employee feedback. Though it can be painful to hear, this information will enable you to benchmark your efforts and discern if your efforts are steering you in the right direction.
- All major crises have a profound and long-term effect on an organization and its leaders. If you have to lay off workers or fire someone, don’t forget that the “survivors” are watching.
Contact Judi Nardella Hershman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703.288.4569