What to say when things go wrong

Posted on May 30th, 2012   |   Written by: Catherine   |  Post Categories: BusinessWriting

Years ago while working in communications for a nuclear company, I was in charge of the company’s crisis communication program. Luckily I didn’t have to apply what I learned about what to say to the media and public when things go wrong as we never had a crisis at the plant. However, in the event we had experienced one, I was trained to respond.

Getting the message out effectively

Few companies have to worry about the level of urgency which might accompany a nuclear incident. However, it’s likely no matter how careful a company is with its safety and reputation, at some point, however minor, unlucky scenarios may happen!

Public perception becomes the truth

Without a plan for clear communication during crises even the most minor incident can be blown way out of proportion. Misconceptions about what happened can be set in motion instantly, particularly in today’s social media environment. And even if asked to do otherwise, people will have a need to talk about it with co-workers, family, and friends – and perhaps even the media. So you want to be “in front” of what has happened.

Act quickly

It’s best to get your message out immediately. Back-tracking a misconception is much harder than not allowing it to surface from the start. As much as you can, assimilate all the facts you know so you can share them objectively. Familiarity with similar crises, fear of the unknown, or the feeling of being out of control can heighten people’s fears. And this can create a public relations nightmare for your company.

Be forthright

Open communication builds trust with the media and community. No matter how well-intended your response is a company can lose the potency of its brand within seconds if the public perceives information is being withheld. So be forthright and share what you know. And if you don’t know yet, say you are working to find out. Then when you do know, always share the information as soon as possible.

What elements make up good crisis communication plan?

  • Designate a spokesperson. Ideally all information should come from one trusted source.
  • Deliver the facts. Decide what information you want others to know and share it.
  • Communicate messages. Develop a few clear, simple messages for the media. Deliver them repeatedly and clearly with the media, community, and employees. The content of the messages should communicate concern and an explanation of what you’re doing to alleviate the crisis.
  • Make a list of tough questions. Be ready to respond to them.
  • Control the message. Stick to the message and the facts. If you have to release bad news, be honest and get it all out at once.
  • Control the flow of information. Hold regularly scheduled news conferences or reports so that the information gets aired frequently and reliably.
  • Keep track of media calls and requests. Respond to them once you’ve developed your response to the crisis.
  • Respond to the news media quickly and fairly. It’s the reporter’s job to deliver the message to the public. Avoiding the news media will only cause reporters to seek information from other sources – and the last thing you want to do is lose control of your message! Also, the public may wonder why you aren’t communicating with the media and may conclude you’re hiding something. Therefore, cooperate with reporters, be sensitive to their deadlines, and provide all of them with the same information.
  • Give instructions for action. It’s human nature for people to want to do something to make the situation better. Giving this information to the media and community will also draw attention away from possible public panic.
  • Select your medium: Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “the medium is the message” which means the form of a message (print, visual, musical, etc.) determines how the message will be perceived. In other words, the media you choose to communicate your message tells your audience the level of its urgency. So if your crisis is not immediate, print might be good since it’s out in the market over a longer period of time. Or if you want your message to be understood immediately, social media might be a better choice.
  • Partner with the public. Involving the public early helps establish trust. If you fail to involve the public at an early stage, they may become angry or overestimate the crisis.

Being prepared ahead of time will help you establish credibility and trust with both the media and your community when things go wrong.

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