8 steps to communicating in a crisis

1. Develop a plan

Don’t wait until a crisis hits to think about how you might handle it. Research the issues which have befallen your sector or competitors previously. If you have a business-continuity plan, review events which have already been identified and detail associated audiences who would be affected.

2. How bad is it?

Define specific threat levels. These could range from ‘immediate danger to life’ and ‘catastrophic impact on your organisation’s reputation’, through to handling inappropriate staff comments on social media. Rank scenarios in order of likely impact.

3. Training

Keep calm and stick to the plan

Your plan should detail who will coordinate a response. Ideally, the ‘worse’ the issue, the more senior the respondent should be. However, consider whether they are being advised professionally, or trained to communicate appropriately? Identify any skills-gaps and resolve them.

4. Sharing and preparing

How will employees answer difficult telephone enquiries in a crisis? How will they greet visitors? What are they likely to say to their family and friends? Draw up guidelines on how to communicate ‘bad’ news internally.

5. Who needs to know what, when and why?

Word-of-mouth and social media travel fast. Employees offer massive potential as positive ambassadors if they are kept properly informed. On the flip side, if you leave an information void long enough it will become filled with rumour and inaccuracy.

6. Stick to the truth

If you’re prepared to lie about information that people have a right or need to know, you probably shouldn’t be working in internal communications. You may emphasise one side of a story for the benefit of your employer, but don’t ever lie – it will come back and haunt you.

7. Avoid jargon or long-winded statements

Barring the immediate involvement of emergency services, legal or regulatory authorities, talk to employees about a crisis first. Identify who needs to know what; invite feedback as appropriate; clearly outline the organisation’s position; keep messages straightforward and professional, and always consider how internal information will appear to the outside world.

8. A culture that communicates

A long term goal should be to create a culture of internal unity and mutual support – not an ‘us and them’ environment. Prepare for tough questions in a crisis, and make sure you know how to answer them. Imagine you are the audience and ask yourself the tough questions ‘so what?’, and ‘what’s in it for me?’ If the answers ring hollow or don’t inform, adjust your plans accordingly.

Mark Ferguson, Director at More Fire PR Ltd, has previously advised on crisis and internal communications initiatives involving UK Police forces, the Health Protection Agency and the National Counter Terrorism Security Office.

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