Communicating in a Crisis – Your Audience

The initial response in the first hour of a crisis is critical and sets the tone for how this crisis will play out in the public eye.  This is the time where you need to gain the trust of your audience and failing to do this may have a more negative impact than the crisis itself.

There are a number of audiences you will need to be in touch with in times of a crisis and here are a few key ones to consider.

 Family – Always inform those directly affected first.  If there has been an accident at work that has affected an individual, the immediate family must be notified before anyone.  You do not want them to be hearing any bad news from a third party or on the news.

Employees – The one rule that applies here is – deliver bad news to everyone all at once.  Why is this important?  Firstly, it stifles rumours and speculation.  Secondly employees would be the first go-to contacts for anyone with questions so they need the facts.  While they may not be authorized to speak to media, you need your team on board with the situation and they can’t do that if they are in the dark.  Deliver the news in person (if you can), speak only to the facts, allow questions and use this opportunity to remind your employees and reinforce your media and social media protocol.

Always follow up with a concise written statement.  Bad news takes longer to process and some may not have fully grasped the situation and a written statement, however brief, minimises any confusion or misunderstanding around what was said.  Plan regular communication to establish and maintain trust.

Other Stakeholders –this could be shareholders, member associations, government…. Similar to internal audiences, your key stakeholders need to be notified by you, not the media or another third party.  The number, location and breadth of stakeholders varies business to business however the most effective communication in the case of a crisis is in writing.  Prepare a concise statement with facts only, leaving out any speculation and be sure to promise (and keep the promise) that you will update your stakeholders as new information comes to hand.

Media – the media has a vital role to play and can be a strong ally during a crisis, assisting in getting your messages out accurately and quickly.  During a crisis the media will usually be sympathetic in the initial stage however being too slow to respond or failing to communicate effectively and promptly may be interpreted as having a hidden agenda and could make the situation worse.  At this stage, holding statements are vital regardless of what type of crisis or who is to blame. The media has an obligation to report a story and if they don’t get the information from you, they will go somewhere else and it may not be the message you want communicated.  Finally, establish a schedule for information to be released as the crisis unfolds.

It is particularly difficult to think as clearly as you should in the throes of a crisis.  If you have a Crisis Communications Plan, then at least you will be one step ahead.  If you don’t, you will be busy planning and trying to communicate at the same time and that can only add pressure you and your team don’t need.  At the least, make sure you have a sounding board, and preferable a communications professional, to double check messaging before it is distributed.  Poor communication during a crisis, can sometimes be worse than the crisis itself.