In some cases, an incident or crisis can be averted if an early warning system is in place. If you know that something is brewing then you have the time to ensure that the key people are up-to-date with the relevant information. You can also prepare communications materials, such as a ‘holding statement’, to be used information about the incident come into the public domain.
Whether you know that an incident is imminent, or not, the steps you take in handling it will be very the same. Obviously, if the crisis comes as out of the blue then you have less time to gather your thoughts and relevant materials – that is why a crisis plan is such a useful document as you will have a great deal of information and materials already at your fingertips.
There are a number of stages in handling your crisis PR and you need to work through each:
Situation analysis, the story – you need to have clarity on what has actually happened. It’s important to get the facts from the people that know. If at all possible avoid getting the story third hand as it will, inevitably, change with interpretation. It’s important to discuss the matter with everyone involved in the incident to determine what has happened – the chronological order of events, the pure facts. The last thing you want is disagreement about the facts when you are about to issue a statement. This may change and be updated as facts emerge – someone needs to take ownership of capturing this information.
Lines of fire – you need to identify your areas of responsibility and whether the company can be attacked for anything that it has done, or failed to do. Ask yourself, who is to blame?
Lines of defence – how can you defend yourself from attack? What processes, procedures are in place to ensure that as a business you have adhered to standards, regulations, procedures, fulfilled your responsibilities etc.
Audiences – who is it that you need to communicate with and is there an order of communication? You will need to think wider than customers. Will local interest groups be affected, staff? Do you need to keep specific types of organizations involved, particularly if they may be approached for comment by the press and media?
Messages – what are the messages that you need to get across to your audiences?
Plan – what action do you need to take? If what has happened affects safety, or puts customers at risk in any way, then you need to consider being proactive in your communication. Your plan should also detail how audiences should be communicated with – the different methods to use and who will be responsible for undertaking those tasks. If staff need to be communicated with then think through what is most appropriate – face-to-face, team meetings, special meeting, email etc.
Briefing material – you need to pull together the relevant briefing material to support your communication: a backgrounder on the company; a statement; questions and answers – you should prepare for the likely, as well as the most difficult, questions.
Spokespeople – are they prepared and briefed to handle press and media interest? Consider wherever rehearsing would be useful.
Contact list – details for anyone you may need to communicate with.
Remember, once a crisis becomes public then the press and media will only be interested in who is to blame. Never lie or try and deceive the press and media, the public or other key audiences about what has happened. If something has gone wrong then accept the blame and then demonstrate what you are doing to put the situation right and ensure it does not happen again. The health and safety of your customers, staff and anyone else influenced by what has happened must be your number one priority – keep that in mind at all times.
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