Crisis communication is the official reaction to a business or industry situation that runs the risk of escalating intensity, falling under close media or government scrutiny, interfering with the normal operations of a business, jeopardizing the positive public image presently enjoyed by the company or its officers, and damaging a company's bottom line in any way. Usually falling under the domain of public relations, a crisis communication plan is essential for any business, large or small, since one can never predict when a crisis may hit an organization.
Crisis communication will become more important as technology continues to advance in the future. During a crisis, a company needs to be able to:
Respond quickly to the mainstream media, social media, and the Internet
Calm upset employees, clients and officials
Minimize damage to their reputation and their ability to continue to do business once the crisis is over.
Crisis communication is something that needs to be practiced and well planned out. Advance planning, communication training and regular crisis drills are the most important elements of good crisis communication preparation. A noted crisis communication expert notes, "Preparation involves creating the crisis management plan, selecting and training the crisis management team, and conducting exercises to test the crisis management plan and crisis management team" (Coombs, 2007). Coombs also recommended assessing the plan annually to make any necessary updates or revisions. Companies that have practiced and planned for proper communication during a crisis have always come through the crisis much better than if they had not planned at all. A good example is the legendary Tylenol crisis of 1982. Someone laced Tylenol bottles with cyanide in stores throughout Chicago, and seven people died. Johnson & Johnson, the product's manufacturers took bold steps to correct the problem, and they had an existing plan. They quickly issued a warning, removed all Tylenol from store shelves across the country, and redesigned the product's seals, leading to new sealing procedures for all medicines in the country. A PR expert notes, "Amid predictions that the Tylenol brand was doomed, the company saw a quick recovery of its 35% market share and in the process fostered an ongoing customer loyalty" (Smith, 2005, p. 23). As this situation indicated, crisis communication is subjective but is always worth planning because a crisis can always be just around the corner.
A company's reputation is extremely important, which is why crisis communication is so important to that reputation. In another article, author Coombs continues, "This process helps to explain why a crisis and media coverage of a crisis are important to an organizational reputation and why they receive so much attention in writings about crisis management" (Coombs, 2004). A company's reputation can greatly suffer during a crisis, so managing it effectively is an important part of the PR picture.
In the old days when most communication departments' structure was created, there was some time before a response was necessary -- time to craft a well thought out assessment of the problem and its' solution. As a reporter researched the story, they checked, reviewed, edited, and printed the facts, then loaded and delivered the newspaper to subscriber's door. The company had 12 to 48 hours, at least, to respond. Today, it is just a matter of seconds for an employee or participant to post an email or a blog on the Internet, and the word spreads from there. Two writers note, "Technology has diminished an organization's control of crisis communication by opening numerous communication channels for others to use to explain their positions and build support" (Vielhaber & Waltman, 2008). Anyone familiar with My Space, Twitter, or Facebook knows just how quickly the word can spread online. Can a PR person craft an adequate response to a crisis situation that timeframe? Can they contact stakeholders and put something together that is meaningful, accurate and address the issue? The PR department still needs time to construct a response. To avoid this, PR departments must learn to create responses before a crisis occurs, so they are prepared for any crisis or emergency.
Initially, spokespeople may not have all the answers, they need to create channels to inform people the matter is being investigated and the progress of the investigation will become public as the matter is monitored and understood. Depending on the issue, this in itself can start calming things down. Not everyone needs an immediate response, because not all outlets have equal influence and therefore do not all need a response. A point of influence should be chosen, and a single spokesperson or a team of spokespeople should work from there (Vielhaber & Waltman, 2008). The efforts should be coupled with the mainstream media (MSM) crisis communications. A wide distribution of misinformation in a wire story, for example, can trigger hundreds of blog posts that need attention and an explanation. Look for hubs of content, MSM and digital, and craft a response to post there first. This will help broaden the impact of any corrections and save lots of time.
However, social media outlets are a useful way to identify warning signs that a crisis is developing. Monitoring of social media should extend into the crisis response and post-crisis phases to check how stakeholders and the public view the crisis management efforts. Serious damaging issues need a wider audience to have impact in the short-term. Social media simply stirs things up, and often at a company's expense, so monitoring social networking sites can give an idea of a crisis in the making. A good example is the uproar over a technical glitch on the Amazon.com Web site over Easter weekend this year. Initial posts appeared describing the problem almost immediately, and spread like wildfire into blogs and the mainstream media. The Amazon Web site seemed to suddenly lose all gay or lesbian themed books, and detractors felt it was an Amazon policy that amounted to book banning. By the time Amazon responded by saying it was merely a technical glitch, there was major damage to the company's reputation, created solely by social media (Probst, 2009).
The crisis plan should include choosing the right spokesperson and quick preparation. This preparation should include thinking about how the public will respond and react to it. Any confusion in the information and stakeholders will post immediately on blogs, Twitter and the like. It is extremely important to remember that the initial reaction should always address public safety issues. Author Coombs continues, "The primary concern in a crisis has to be public safety. A failure to address public safety intensifies the damage from a crisis" (Coombs, 2007). Preparation should address these issues above all others or the spokesperson will not receive the respect of the audience. The response also has to be quick, as the Amazon situation clearly shows. Another expert notes, "Take immediate action to prevent the situation from growing worse. You will need to mobilize a response team, and you will need to alert authorities" (Jarret, 2007). This is something that can be accomplished in the pre-crisis planning stage, and it should be rehearsed, so people are familiar with it when the time comes to implement it.
Employees are certainly stakeholders in the crisis, so the crisis communication should provide employees with information on how their jobs may be affected at some point in the crisis plan. Author Coombs continues, "The Business Roundtable (2002) and Corporate Leadership Council (2003) remind us that employees need to know what happened, what they should do, and how the crisis will affect them" (Coombs, 2007). It is also important to communicate to employees that they can decline to comment on the crisis to any media, and that it would be in the best interests of the company if they do decline, and refrain from discussing it online, as well. The communication should also provide company executives with relevant information for the protection of customers, employees, vendors and nearby facilities. In fact, it is a good idea to have at least one company executive on the crisis communication team, or acting as a reliable spokesperson for the company.
In a crisis situation, it is always best when a mistake has been made to admit it up front, and begin doing whatever is possible to re-establish credibility and confidence with internal and external audiences. Author Coombs states, "As reputational threat increases, crisis management teams should utilize strategies that indicate a greater acceptance of responsibility for the crisis and simultaneously demonstrate concern for victims" (Coombs, 2004). If a spokesperson or team does not communicate immediately, they lose the greatest opportunity to control events and reactions to them. The initial news release should include at a minimum the "who, what, when and where" of the situation, and it must never contain any incorrect information, that could only lead to further problems as the crisis develops.
After the crisis, a post-crisis team should analyze the reaction to the crisis both internally and externally, and they should adjust the crisis communication plan as required, so they are ready and…