SEPTEMBER 15, 2020
The steps taken by companies during the early moments of a crisis can make or break their brand. Fast, smart and heartfelt communications are critical to mitigating a crisis and getting business back to usual. Yet many companies make misstep after misstep during this crucial period, saying too little or nothing at all, or saying exactly the wrong thing. Here are some basic – but important – questions PR pros and their clients often ask at the onset of a crisis.
Q: When do I need to release a statement?
A: The timing of a statement release depends on several factors, including the severity of the crisis and how the media is responding. In most cases, a statement should be released as soon as possible (preferably, within hours of learning of a crisis), as experience shows a fast, thoughtful and caring response is the most effective way to mitigate a crisis.
Q: Should I proactively send a statement to reporters or wait until they request one?
A: Again, this will depend on the severity of the crisis. In most cases, send your statement only to reporters who have requested one. There is no sense spurring additional coverage of the crisis by sending it to media that are unaware and/or not interested. However, in a crisis that is being followed by almost all media, sharing a statement with all of them ASAP is preferable. Also, the reason we prepare “holding” statements is so that (1) we’ve got our messaging ready to go in the event of media inquiries and (2) we can “hold” them in hopes the media never comes calling.
Q: “I’ll just say, ‘no comment,’ is that OK?”
A: Avoid “no comment” as much as possible. Not commenting is often perceived by the general public and the news media as an attempt to hide the truth or not accept responsibility. Early in a crisis, it is best to acknowledge what has happened based on the facts available, explain what steps are being taken, express sympathy and/or take responsibility, and communicate frequently. Being proactive is always preferred over inaction – which is the essence of “no comment.”
Q: What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t say anything to address a crisis?
A: There are some instances in which not saying anything is preferred, at least early on. For example, the filing of a lawsuit often requires a thoughtful, coordinated response by attorneys, companies and PR counsel. However, not saying anything often is a mistake. It can make the damage deeper and longer lasting, because silence makes a company appear uncaring, unprepared and unaccountable. A brand can do itself great harm by saying nothing in a crisis, and rarely will it do itself more harm by commenting.
Q: Is it important for my statement to sound “human,” or is it OK to share canned corporate language to keep it as boring as possible?
A: Human is always preferable, but some “corporate” language is probably unavoidable depending on the circumstances of the crisis. It is OK to be conservative in terms of describing the incident, especially early on, so as to not provide sensational words and phrasing that might be picked up by the media. At the same time, expressing empathy with phrases such as “deeply saddened” or “senseless tragedy” will help people keep faith in the brand. Customers want to know the company cares, so a dose of humanity will help.
Q: How do you feel about “our thoughts and prayers” messaging?
A: It certainly has become trite and even mocked – as some people now equate “thoughts and prayers” from politicians as “but we’re not going to do anything to fix the problem.” So, avoid “thoughts and prayers,” but come up with a different way to show you care.
Q: Do we need to draft a statement about every single national issue? Probably not, unless the client is likely to be contacted by the media on every single national issue. If that’s the case – that more often than not, the client will receive media inquiries on a national issue – then holding statements should be drafted and ready to go.
Q: When do we need to communicate internally?
A: All shareholders should be considered and communicated with during a crisis, including employees, and so internal communications should be part of the messaging from the start. Don’t leave employees in the dark, and it’s best to arm them with messaging because they will be asked about the crisis by customers, friends, members of the public, etc.
Q: We’re trying to catch up to the media because my client is not sharing time-sensitive information in a timely manner. How can we address this in an effective manner without offending them or implying they’re disorganized?
A: For starters, you need to get on the same page with the client regarding the importance of timely communication during a crisis. You need to iron out what “timely” means in terms of minutes or hours, the approval process and who provides final sign-off on crisis communications, and who is responsible for what during a crisis. If the client has a crisis communications plan but isn’t following it, direct their attention to the plan. If the client doesn’t have a plan, this is a great time to convince them to let you craft one – which should help the client buy into both the plan and timely sharing of critical information.
The Wilbert Group
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