There are five key factors communications professionals need to successfully navigate crises and issues. You won’t find these factors in a textbook or case study; rather, they come from decades of experience in managing crisis communications. Michael Meath, crisis communications expert and visiting professor at Syracuse University made time to share the blueprints for how he approaches each challenge.
1. Take the “Critical 10”
Answering in haste may exacerbate a crisis. Being on the receiving end of a phone call or urgent message always puts you disadvantage—you may be unprepared and you’re on someone else’s time. In these situations, always say you are unavailable and offer to call back in 10 minutes.
These 10 minutes may be the difference between an issue and a crisis. Always give yourself time to digest, reflect, and analyze before responding on your own time. When returning a call, you are implicitly in control of the conversation and better suited to provide information and answer questions.
2. Think in 140
Don’t literally think in tweets; rather, keep all messaging consistent and concise.
When a crisis occurs and all the information is not available, organizations must prepare holding statements until more information becomes available. These consistent and concise statements must contain the following three components: fact, empathy, and what’s next. There’s no room for speculation.
The same process is necessary when crafting key messages. Limit yourself to one-page at 14-point font and craft 5-7 messages that are useful for all audiences. This ensures a consistent and clear voice and supports information partners (e.g., journalists, regulators, customers, employees) in disseminating your key messages to larger audiences.
3. Who Speaks…and who is the designated backup?
When selecting a spokesperson—be it a CEO or subject matter expert--ensure that you train and prepare multiple backups. Unforeseen circumstances may prevent the designated speaker from continuing, and while it is preferable to only have one spokesperson, not having an appropriate replacement is unacceptable.
4. Bridge with your ATM
During an interview or conference, think about your ATM: acknowledge, transition, message.
Acknowledging a question or point may be difficult, but demonstrates understanding and empathy. Phrases such as “No comment”, “look”, “listen”, “what you need to know” are dismissive and demoralizing, and may further hurt your reputation.
Instead, once you’ve acknowledged the point, say “what I can tell you is…” before returning to your key messages. These are the six best words available to return to and emphasize your messaging.
5. Always take dessert
Opportunities are almost offered in every interview or press conference but are rarely taken advantage of. The answer to “is there anything else you would like to add?” is always an emphatic yes. Always take this opportunity to reiterate your messages and potentially save the interview.
Crises are never a question of “if”, but “when”. Implement these five factors in your communications plans and activities until they become muscle memory. When a crisis does strike, you’ll have a reliable compass to successfully navigate the storm.