Facing a crisis—or worried you might be in the future?

You’re not alone. Nearly every major organization confronts a crisis at one time or another, whether it’s a three-week kerfuffle or a yearlong federal investigation. In the age of Twitter, even a lowly employee can ignite a crisis. “Today, reputation management is only as good as an organization’s search results,” says Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich. Here are some tips from the experts for getting out ahead of your crisis. Remember: It starts with preparation.
  1. Prepare on a ‘sunny day.’
The worst time to deal with your crisis is on a dark day in the middle of your crisis, says Gerard Braud, a media coach and former network TV reporter. Prepare when the weather’s clear—when the phones aren’t ringing and mobile TV transmitters aren’t setting up right outside your CEO’s house. First, set up an account with CNN iReport, which enables you to upload video for potential broadcast. Sign up with iReport and figure it out on your clear day so it’s ready when your crisis hits, and you can produce your own videos or B-roll. Braud uploads videos of 38 to 52 seconds each. Practice shooting video on your smartphone and sharing it to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
  1. Create a ‘first critical statement.’
This should be in every crisis communications plan, Braud says. The first critical statement is a way to tell the world that a crisis has happened, you know about it, your organization is dealing with it, and you will provide more information as soon as you have it. When few facts are known, it allows the PR person to:
  • Acknowledge the crisis
  • Provide basic facts
  • Say something quotable, while promising more information at a future briefing
  1. Be targeted.
Focus messaging on the right audience, says Gil Rudawsky of GroundFloor Media in Denver. Which mainstream media outlets will reach them? What about social media?
  1. Hurry!
If you act quickly, he says, it shows that your organization is addressing the issues. Presenting the facts early on can defuse a negative situation and keep it from spiraling. Get a statement out, and make your spokesperson available while reporters are baying for red meat. “Act swiftly,” says Dietrich. “You might think you’ll never have to worry about reputation management, but social media creates an environment where you have to be on your toes all day, every day.” An employee could say something racist online, she says. A customer could spread lies about your organization on Facebook, or a competitor might engage in a whisper campaign against you. Have a communications expert on your team (or on speed dial) and respond right away, Dietrich says.
  1. Keep it concise—but comprehensive.
Crisis communication should be compact, delivering a lot of information in a small space and time, Rudawsky says. Articulate what the company is doing and, if possible, how long the process might take, he adds. Don’t commit to a timeframe if you aren’t sure of it; if a solution is not imminent, let your customers know.
  1. Be candid.
Perhaps more so than any other content you create, crisis communication must be honest and clear if the company’s audiences are going to trust you to get through the event.  
  1. Have a heart.
Regardless of the source of the problem, it’s likely you have let your customers or employees down, Rudawsky says. Acknowledge this, and get to work to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
  1. Monitor the media real-time.
Otto Hoering, media measurement manager at Ketchum, says real-time monitoring of TV and radio is especially useful in crises. (These can include product recalls, major layoffs and SEC investigations.) For example, “if there’s any kind of lawsuit where a client’s being sued for something, it’s really important to have instant feedback on what’s being said in the media about that,” Hoering says.
  1. Remember that location trumps expertise.
Location (the farmer in a cornfield who videos the crashed alien spaceship with his iPhone) trumps expertise (the Washington correspondent in front of NSA’s Alien Tracking Division headquarters). This is also true of your crisis. The guy shooting a chemical spill in a ditch with his BlackBerry gets the air time. “When you are on location, you are golden,” Braud says. “If the yahoo is on location and you’re back in the office, the yahoo has the advantage over you.”
  1. Call an event what it is.
YouTube is the second-most-powerful search engine on the planet, Braud says. Want your spin on that refinery fire to turn up? Do not “corporately sanitize” the title of your video. Call a fire a fire. Don’t call it “an event in which something got warm and caused flickering images,” he suggests.
  1. Get the right person out in front.
Should your executives speak to journalists? Should a PR pro? Or should multiple spokespeople? Braud recommends that you train numerous staffers as spokespeople. In a crisis, the PR person should speak during the first hour of the crisis, he says. By the end of the second hour of a fast-breaking crisis, a subject matter expert should be out front. If needed, the subject matter expert can remain as spokesman if the crisis is ongoing. The final news briefing of the day might be the best time to feature the chief executive. Several years ago, when Toyota recalled 9 million vehicles in the United States because of accelerator pedals that could become stuck or trapped by floor mats, key leaders held community chats via Digg Dialogg and Twitter. This put executives before the public in new ways. This had not been the protocol, given that the company identity lay in the collective. Toyota communicators realized that consumers wanted to see a face and to know that high-level executives were taking their concerns seriously.
  1. Apologize when needed.
When Microsoft’s Outlook.com email service crashed, some customers were without email for three days. Microsoft’s apologized with a 400-word statement. It simply and honestly explained a technical issue and the ways the company would fix the glitch so it wouldn’t happen again, Rudawsky says. It was effective because the company actually made a public apology, emailing it directly to all of its Outlook customers. It could have simply apologized though the media or posted it on a website, but instead it owned the mea culpa, Rudawsky says.
  1. Recognize that everything is external.
Every internal memo that Lehigh University sent out during a yearlong federal civil rights investigation was immediately forwarded to the press, says Jordan Reese, director of media relations. Your audience always includes the general public; speak accordingly. “So, we were not [just] speaking internally anymore,” Reese says. “We never really were.”