Four principles of crisis communication

I ran two training courses recently for two different companies. Both were for consumer goods companies; both focused on how they would respond to a fictitious but serious product safety issue (a product was catching fire). The first company had very clear values, which were drilled into the team. Safety and care for customers was more than a catchphrase; everyone working for the brand lived and breathed its values, and had the authority to act on them. As a result, the team moved fast to respond to the crisis. They knew how they should behave – safety of customers was genuinely the most important thing to them. They recalled the faulty products quickly, and did everything they could to help the people who’d been affected by the crisis, even though it cost the company money.

The second company did not know what its values were, far less how to act on them. The crisis team leader refused to believe the product was unsafe. “Until I see evidence of the burns, we don’t know if this issue is really serious,” he said. The cost of acting was too high, too much of a financial risk. His team argued with him, but the leader got his way. As a result, the crisis descended into chaos. The team didn’t believe they were doing the right thing, and they couldn’t pull together to deal with the crisis. By the time the leader saw the evidence he wanted, it was too late. The brand’s reputation was in tatters.

Principle 1: start with your values
If you’re ever unsure of how to approach a crisis, the place to start is with your values. Not by communicating them – no one cares about your corporate messages when they’re in danger – but by acting on them. Your values will inform how you behave, what you say, and how quickly you recover from the crisis.

Principle 2: tell the truth, and tell it often
This should be blindingly obvious, but it’s surprisingly hard to do. When a crisis hits, our instinct is often to hide, and say nothing. Or at least, to say as little as possible, in the hope that no one will find out about it. But in the age of social media, the truth – or a version of it – will always come out. If you don’t tell the truth, and get found out (and you will), it will be far more damaging than getting the issue out in the open, on your own terms. Never, ever lie. Communicate regularly, so that people come to you for the facts. It will build trust, and position you as the trusted voice of authority in the crisis. If you don’t communicate, someone else will – and they may not have your best interests at heart.

Principle 3: act first, communicate second
It can be easy to forget that fixing a crisis takes more than communications. It takes action. Put right what’s gone wrong, and tell people (or even better, show them) what you’re doing to make things right.

Principle 4: communicate with empathy
To communicate with empathy, you have to have empathy. Empathy in a crisis means switching your view – not focusing on what you want to say, but what others need to hear. Imagine you’re talking to someone affected by the crisis. What would they need to know?

There’s an amazing framework for empathy that I use all the time, developed by Professor Theresa Wiseman, a clinical professor of applied health research specialising in Cancer Care at the University of Southampton and the Royal Marsden hospital. It was created to set the standards in nursing care, but it works really well in a crisis context:

  • See the world as others do
  • Understand others’ feelings
  • Be non-judgmental
  • Communicate the understanding.

Managing a crisis can be daunting. But if you stick to these core four principles, you stand a good chance of finding the right approach to see you safely through to the other side.

Kate Hartley is a crisis communications trainer, and author of Communicate in a Crisis. She is the co-founder of crisis simulation company, Polpeo.

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This is part of our Beginner's Guide to public relations