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Communicating in a Crisis

When organizations are experiencing a crisis, they must communicate with customers and other stakeholders quickly. It’s also important to be as honest as possible, to show compassion, and to avoid blaming others. These are a few of the best practices recommended by experts when it comes to crisis communications.

The popularity of social networks and blogs makes it all the more important for organizations and professionals to communicate expeditiously about a crisis, says Jane Jordan-Meier, founder of Jane Jordan & Associates, a high-risk communications consulting firm. That’s because people won’t wait to hear from the company. When a crisis occurs, one of the first sites people turn to is Twitter, she says. In the absence of direct communications from the company, people will be even more likely to pay attention to rumor, innuendo, and other false information.

To be able to respond quickly, organizations must be prepared. One way they can prepare is to make sure that their traditional public relations or communications personnel work closely with others within the company who are responsible for communication via social media, Jordan-Meier says. In many organizations, the various employees with those different responsibilities do not coordinate their communications, she notes.

Executives should meet with all of the appropriate personnel to plan how the company can present coordinated communications during crises. The plan should include a discussion of the means and the timing of communications. Organizations should make sure that they can communicate through a variety of channels. These could include the telephone and e-mail in addition to blogs and sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Those multiple avenues of communication provide redundancy if one fails but also, it’s important to reach “stakeholders by ways that they prefer,” says Jordan-Meier. She advises organizations to practice implementing the plan to make sure that it can be carried out as intended.

In terms of the content of what is communicated, it’s important to be clear and honest, says Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management. There are several main categories of dishonesty, he says. These include lies of commission, omission, exaggeration, and understatement. Regardless of which type of dishonesty occurs, “the public will look at all of those as lies,” he says.

Companies should consult with their legal counsel before providing any type of response, according to Jordan-Meier. That said, relying too much on attorneys can sometimes lead to situations where organizations will not say enough. In these instances, organizations may even appear to be “hiding behind their attorneys,” she notes. It’s “important not to put yourself in jail,” but when an organization does not provide “basic information for shareholders, it can be perceived as stonewalling or doing something wrong,” she adds.

One area that is sometimes contentious is whether a company should say it is sorry about the incident. Some do not recommend it on the theory that it might be interpreted by the courts as an admission of guilt. Others say that it can avert lawsuits because people appreciate any statement where management expresses contrition. Though not an attorney, Jordan-Meier says she does not believe that organizations will incur any liability for telling customers and others that they are “sorry” about a situation.

It’s important to take responsibility for failures. Organizations and people “start to get themselves in trouble when they start to blame other people,” she says.

Demonstrating compassion is equally important. That can sometimes be lacking in responses by corporations and governments, Bernstein says. When compassion isn’t shown, an audience frequently won’t listen to what is being said. To build trust long before a crisis, companies should reach out to stakeholders and customers before problems arise.

Social media tools offer organizations and executives a way to communicate more frequently with customers and others when crises aren’t imminent, Jordan-Meier says. This can be an opportunity to build credibility on an ongoing basis, which can help when a crisis hits.