The Key To Successful Crisis Communications: Show Up

Crises happen to everyone, and they can happen at any time. Whether it’s a natural disaster or a defective product or a business policy derailed, crises are lurking everywhere. And in these days of social media how you handle that crisis, often more than the crisis itself can be the decisive factor in whether your company survives or not.

Good crisis communications is built, essentially, on four pillars: honesty, transparency, accountability, and consistency. That means telling the truth, not hiding the facts, not blaming someone else, and doing what you’re saying while also saying what you’re doing.

Nowhere to Hide

Showing up, assuring the public that you are investigating, helping any victims, and keeping communications open will put the media on your side and actually help to ease the crisis.

A crisis is not the time to exonerate yourself or behave like an ostrich and hide. Your response must be quick. The longer you wait to say something, the more likely it is that the media and/or the public will begin to criticize you for your lack of response. Lawyers may advise waiting until you have all the facts before making a statement, but communicating in times of crisis is as much about public perception as it is about facts. The media will convict you or exonerate you immediately on how much you appear to be concerned and on top of the situation. Showing up, assuring the public that you are investigating, helping any victims, and keeping communications open will put the media on your side and actually help to ease the crisis.

Getting ahead of public opinion — taking control of the narrative — requires showing up, even if you have nothing concrete to say. You can still assume a posture of responsibility and authority (and yes, this also means good physical posture), state corporate policy if and as it may apply to the situation. Be responsible and humble. This approach will make all the difference in how the public perceives and judges you and your company. You don’t have to have all the facts and all the answers before making a statement to show you’re working on the crisis. And that means you do have to show up and fast.

The Deepwater Disaster

One textbook case on how not to handle a disaster is the nine-day BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 when an estimated five million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of people lost their livelihood, and the environmental coast has yet to be reckoned.  BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward showed up at the scene and, trying to downplay the incident, called the amount of oil spilled “very tiny” compared to the “very big ocean.” Public outcry was immediate and reached a fevered pitch when, in a later TV interview, Hayward compounded the problem by insensitively saying to a reporter, “You know, I’d like my life back.”

The crisis cost Hayward his job, and cost BP well over $100 billion in market share, cleanup costs, penalties, contracts, and boycotts. That’s not to mention all the cost in lost goodwill, which can be more difficult to regain than market share.

Today, many companies engage in “risk mapping” to gauge a company’s potential for crises, trying to predict what, when and where they might occur. This can’t hurt, but even more useful is putting together in advance a process for quick action and decision-making in times of crisis, so you don’t have to create one in the midst of mayhem.

Making a Strategic Plan

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Create a key-person crisis team to make decisions quickly. The team should contain at least the CEO, communications director, and legal. But keep it a small and agile group, not a committee.
  2. Appoint a spokesperson (and a backup) whose job it is to communicate publicly and regularly (including “on the record”) in addition to whatever statements you might make as CEO.
  3. Be prepared to issue a “holding statement” immediately for internal distribution so employees know what is happening, who is authorized to speak publicly, and what the official position is.

You can’t always predict when a crisis will happen or what that crisis will be, but you can be prepared, and get out in front of potentially damaging public opinion if you have a process in place beforehand to react quickly with honesty, humility, and transparency.

Editor’s Note: This Article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with Author permission.


Adrian Dearnell
Adrian Dearnell
I am a bilingual Franco-American financial journalist, with more than 20 years' experience in financial television. I have conducted over 4,000 face-to-face interviews with top CEOs, investors, analysts, and economists. In 2002, I co-founded EuroBusiness Media (EBM), a leading communications agency specialized in strategic messaging. I work with the largest global companies, helping CEOs and business leaders, from message creation to high-impact delivery.

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