The most important communications strategy in a crisis, particularly in the first few hours, is to be open with the
public by being available to the news media. Perception is truth and the media creates the perception following a crisis. Most organizations face problems at one time or another. Sometimes, these difficulties make it into the local, or national press and on social media channels.
Here are some important rules of crisis communications:
- Create a crisis communications plan that includes dealing with the media, social media, the community and your employees.
- Make sure your communication plan details what situations constitute a crisis or not. Responding to a situation that is merely inconvenient in a crisis mode could create a crisis that never did exist.
- Nominate a crisis team and make sure they have been professionally trained in doing hard news interviews. Train and support your staff and volunteers. Basic information on communicating with the media should form part of staff, volunteer, board and committee member training.
- Appoint a spokesperson and two back-ups today. Do not wait for the crisis to occur. Appointing a senior member of staff or management committee member to speak on behalf of your group gives a professional and consistent voice in times of crisis.
- Make sure you inform everyone - your management committee members, staff, volunteers, stakeholders, partners, relevant funders and users should all be told first by you, rather than the media.
- Create a short policy and guidelines on handling the media if and when your organization experiences a crisis and circulate it widely amongst your staff including your receptionist.
- Respond to reporters’ questions immediately. They expect a return call or an on-site interview within 10 minutes of the request.
- Develop a holding statement - write a short statement that demonstrates sympathy with anyone adversely affected, assures everyone you are aware of the situation and details, as much as possible, what you are doing to tackle the situation with answers these questions – who? what? where? when? why? how? – with more details as the results of your investigation unfolds.
- Never lie. If you don't know the answers to reporter's questions, never say "no comment." Tell them that you are investigating the issues and will respond to them as soon as you know more about the situation. Write a simple response and get it approved by your spokesperson before making it public.
- Investigate the situation which could mean setting up your own enquiry or cooperating with an external investigation (e.g. police). Make sure staff and volunteers are supported through this difficult time.
Never go off the record. In a crisis there is already much confusion. Do not add to it. Tell a reporter only what you want to see on the front page of the local paper or on trending topic on Twitter.
- Have media kits already prepared and in the crisis room ready for distribution.
- Keep up the communication - use your website, social media channels, and face-to-face contact to reassure your users and stakeholders that you are taking the issue seriously and advise whether there are any changes to your services or not.
- Practice implementing your crisis plan by going through a mock crisis once a year. Do not forget the news media and social media elements during the practice.
The need for every organization to have a thorough crisis communications plan in place, a crisis team appointed and a spokesperson in place, well before any crisis occurs is summed up nicely in this saying: "By the time you hear the thunder, it’s too late to build the ark!"