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  • Writer's pictureMindy Hamlin

5 Steps to a Successful Crisis Communications Response

Updated: May 16, 2020

When I was director of public relations at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina, a plane went down in Charlotte. Almost immediately, I began receiving calls from local media asking if any of the passengers were destined for our airport. Since this was not information I would have access to, I sought out the name of the airline’s media contact, which was a partner for what was then U.S. Airways.

I didn’t make it past the airline’s website home page. When I pulled it up, a woman with overly bright teeth and hair pulled back into a tight bun, smiled at me. Arms outstretched. Inviting me to be the airline’s next passenger. I still remember the screeching sound that went through my head.

The lesson? When crisis strikes, your communications strategy must be nimble enough to adapt quickly. Never has this lesson been more applicable to more organizations and brands than during COVID-19. It has been the crisis communications equalizer. From the local restaurant owner to the largest airlines, all organizations have had to change the purpose and tone of their communications.

Communication in the Time of Crisis

Following are five tips for how your organization can plan for, and communicate in, a crisis.

1. Conduct a vulnerability audit. While some organizations were prepared for a pandemic crisis, I can bet most were not, reminding us of the importance of conducting a vulnerability audit before crisis strikes. To do this, gather your executive and management teams and ask yourselves: What are the crises that threaten your operations, finances and reputation? For some organizations, the top 5 threats are obvious. For instance, a food company should be prepared to launch a crisis response to food recalls, but what other crises can impact their bottom line and operations? Dive below the surface. Break your team up into small groups and have each team identify potential crisis situations. From here, you and your executive team can rank the crisises and begin creating specific, targeted responses.

2. Develop a communications response for each potential crisis. First, if your organization does not have a crisis communication plan, do it now. If companies have learned one thing during COVID-19, it is that reacting to crisis day-to-day is not only exhausting, but it can also do irreparable damage to your organization’s reputation. Once your crisis communications plan outlines who does what and when and the potential crises your business faces, turn your attention to individual crises.

Using the vulnerability audit as a guide, begin creating messages, fact sheets, press releases and social media messages for each crisis. While in draft form, review the fact sheets and messages with your executive team. The key is to have sign off on messages and facts before a crisis so you are not debating what you want to say in the midst of the chaos.

3. Communicate before the crisis. If there is a looming threat that has the potential to become a crisis, such as a growing pandemic, weather threat or economic downturn, dust off your messages and begin getting them out to your key stakeholders. Feature a statement on your website that explains the actions your organization takes to mitigate potential threats. Use social media to amplify this message. For example, a nursing home can post the actions it is taking at its facilities to get ahead of a growing pandemic. Use your blog. Tell your story. Discuss how your organization is preparing for a crisis or explain how your organizations addresses issues, such as economic downturns, disruption to production schedules, inclement weather. You and your team can fill in the blank.

4. Launch a dark site. A dark site, which temporarily replaces your website with crisis-related information, answers questions the public and media will want answered, provides you an opportunity to control the narrative and illustrates that you are taking the crisis seriously. Your dark site should feature a statement from your organization that covers the 5 Ws: Who, What, Where, When and Why. Threaded throughout the statement is empathy and compassion for those who have been impacted by the incident, as well as the actions you are currently taking either to end the crisis or address it. While the content will change based on the evolving situation, the empathy message should remain throughout the life of the crisis.

The dark site should also feature a link to your main website, and, as the crisis starts to subside, the site can be taken down. However, it is recommended that a link to the information related to the crisis be accessible until the crisis is over and the public and media no longer need access to the information. Another option is a crisis microsite. A specific site created solely for the crisis and can be sustained long-term.

5. Establish your organization as the trusted source for crisis related information. Use your web site and social media to establish your organization as the source of current and accurate information as soon as the crisis happens. As discussed above, your dark site will serve many purposes. One of the main goals of the page is not only to recognize the importance of the event, but also to provide a location for your organization to respond to the crisis and to post updates related to your response and actions. Use your social media channels to drive stakeholders and media to your site. Social media can also be used to launch your crisis communications in the early moments of the incident since users will most likely begin communicating about you and the crisis almost immediately.

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