Crises can be scary if you’re not prepared

halloween-clip-artAs we approach Halloween, stores are decked out in all manner of decorations and costumes designed to scare, terrify and horrify you.

As a professional public relations professional, nothing frightens me more than an organization that does not have a viable crisis communications plan.

And, yet, too few do.

Oh, they might have a giant binder with pages and pages of scenarios and prescriptions for what to do if X happens. But in the midst of a crisis, who has time to locate the binder and find the appropriate scenario? And, who will you call if some or all of the people listed in the precious binder are no longer with the organization?

Every crisis is different and there is no way to predict every possible scenario that could strike an organization. Let’s start with the official definition of a crisis: anything that can harm the operations and/or reputation of an organization.

That leaves a lot of leeway.

A crisis can include natural and human-caused disasters, ranging from floods, tornadoes and hurricanes to embezzlement, client injury or death or someone hacking into your computer system and stealing or destroying data.

Note: not every crisis will become a media story. But by having a plan in place you can better address the impact of a crisis on your employees, clients and other stakeholders.

Rather than wasting time on developing unwieldy documents that are likely to be useless and outdated before you finish printing and distributing them, develop a one-page plan and keep it handy.

When I worked for a faith-based social service agency with multiple facilities and services lines throughout two states, I produced such a document on hot pink paper and sent it to all the managers. Regardless of how they filed, stacked or dumped their paperwork, that hot pink paper was going to stand out when they needed it.

Here are the basics of a viable crisis communications plan:

  • Know who you need to get to the table.
  • Develop the talking points.
  • Designate a spokesperson.

Who is at the table and who should be the spokesperson depends on the crisis. If the CEO of a company has done something wrong, he or she should not be at the table and certainly not talking to the media and stakeholders. If a pastor’s child has been injured during a church mission trip, the pastor should not be expected to carry the burden of going to the meeting and making public statements.

Those at the table should be a small, thoughtful, informed group of your stakeholders. They could include your executive team, the chair or president of your board and a professional with communications expertise.

The crisis communications team’s charge is to gather the following information:

  • what happened,
  • who is involved,
  • who is likely to be involved,
  • who do we need to inform,
  • what are we doing to address the event, and, if possible,
  • what are we doing to prevent this from happening again?

The answers to those questions will determine your talking points. In most situations, attorneys are going to join the fray and will advise your organization to say nothing so you avoid admitting liability.

That is the absolute worst thing to do.

When you hear that an organization has refused to comment or could not be reached for comment, the default assumption is that the organization has done something wrong. People will remember and hold onto that assumption long after the crisis has abated.

It is imperative and possible to say SOMETHING, while not assigning blame. Saying something makes your organization more human and humane. That goes a long way toward building or rebuilding your reputation when you need it the most.

The final important step is to designate a single spokesperson for your organization. The reasons are simple: you make sure an approved, single message goes out. Your organization needs to instruct all internal and external constituents that all questions are to be directed toward the designated spokesperson, who will use the agreed-upon talking points to respond to questions. All stakeholders must get the same information to avoid conflicting messages.

If the crisis rises to the level of a media story and your spokesperson is not media savvy, he or she can contact a public relations/media relations professional for help and practice on delivering the message and responding to questions. (Identify that person when you develop your plan.) Your spokesperson needs to be genuine, not slick, when delivering the message and able to stick to the agreed-upon talking points.

Using the talking points, your spokesperson can say:

“This happened. We deeply regret that it happened. We are doing everything possible to address this situation. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who are affected.”

The spokesperson can read it as a prepared statement or distribute it electronically. If he or she is comfortable taking questions, he or she can respond, but must stick to the talking points. Stick to the facts. Avoid speculation and giving a rambling response. Keep it short and sweet.

Above all, there are two rules to follow when answering questions from the media to avoid damaging (or further damaging) your organization’s reputation:

  1. Don’t lie.
  2. Acknowledge when you don’t know the answer to a question and that you will get the information to the questioner as soon as possible (and do it).

Once your organization has developed the skeleton of its crisis communications plan, it is incumbent upon the organization’s leadership to practice it regularly. Brainstorm with your staff and stakeholders about possible scenarios, even ones that make you uncomfortable. Check the headlines and do “what if this happened to us?” Walk through the steps of who would be called to action, what the talking points are and who will be the spokesperson in each scenario.

During such practices, encourage participants to think way outside the box about what could go wrong and affect your organization. You might even head off a potential crisis.

If you make it a regular practice to discuss and test your crisis communications plan, your organization is more likely to come out of a terrifying situation whole.

Katherine Kerr holds an Accreditation in Public Relations and has worked in public relations and news for more than 30 years. She is the president of Polaris Non-Profit Solutions, LLC, and can be reached at or (512) 705-7696.

For a downloadable version of this post, please click Crisis Communications_Polaris NPS10.14.

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