Basic Principles for Crisis Communications

This is my entry for the Global PR Blog Week, running through tomorrow. Whether the phones are ringing, camera trucks are showing up at a worksite, union leadership is speaking at a public hearing, or a regulator is issuing safety warnings about your product, it's pretty clear you've got a crisis.

Instead of days or weeks, you've got minutes to map out how your organization will respond. You have to demonstrate awareness of the issue, empathize with the community and possible victims, appear knowledgeable to stakeholders, and prepare for detailed questioning from the board, Wall Street analysts, regulators, politicians and the public.

Ideally, you will have already tackled your toughest challenge: preparing your leadership for the glare of the local, national or international spotlight. In some industries, some tough media training will suffice. In others, CEOs, Presidents, General Managers and Plant Managers may be called upon to explain safety or health consequences of an accident clearly and competently.

The key to the success of this dialogue is a corporate culture that understands the benefits of risk communications. It's a field of study that emphasizes transparency, information sharing, honest consultation processes and accountability.

Effective risk communications forces your organization to identify possible threats to its business, clients, workers, neighbours and other stakeholders - and to work with these groups in developing a shared response. It's an ongoing process - more effective than a stale binder on a shelf, and more reassuring than a troubleshooter flown in when the first reporter calls. Vincent Covello, one of several academic authorities in the field, identified seven cardinal rules of risk communication:

  • Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner
  • Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts
  • Listen to the public's specific concerns
  • Be honest, frank and open
  • Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources
  • Meet the needs of the media
  • Speak clearly and with compassion

    While these rules were originally developed with health risks in mind, they apply equally to any situation where you must communicate to a variety of audiences about an incident, accident or health or safety risk.

    Interestingly, the recent push for greater accountability from corporate officers (and subsequent court cases) has helped "open some eyes" in the previously insular world of the "e-suite" to the benefits of open and honest communication strategies. An example? Michael Eisner reacted slowly to the emerging threat from Roy Disney and Stanley Gold - and is now seeing his power curtailed because of it.

    Clearer applications can be found in the transportation, food, chemical, energy and nuclear industries - where accidents arising from everyday operations can affect the lives of thousands of people.

    Peter Sandman, another expert in the field, acknowledges that communicators will face ten (or more) dilemmas when developing or implementing emergency and crisis plans:

  • Candor versus secrecy
  • Speculation versus refusal to speculate
  • Tentativeness versus confidence
  • Being alarming versus being reassuring
  • Being human versus being professional
  • Being apologetic versus being defensive
  • Decentralization versus centralization
  • Democracy and individual control versus expert decision-making
  • Planning for denial and misery versus planning for panic
  • Erring on the side of caution versus taking chances

    He's offered his preferred approach to each dilemma - at the link.

    Sandman has also provided some suggestions for messaging during crises - especially when a corporate decision has provoked outrage from stakeholders. Many of these suggestions will run counter to any advice being offered by your legal counsel:

  • Don’t over-reassure.
  • Put reassuring information in subordinate clauses.
  • Err on the alarming side.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty.
  • Share dilemmas.
  • Acknowledge opinion diversity.
  • Be willing to speculate.
  • Don’t overdiagnose or overplan for panic.
  • Don’t aim for zero fear.
  • Don’t forget emotions other than fear.
  • Don’t ridicule the public’s emotions.
  • Legitimize people’s fears.
  • Tolerate early over-reactions.
  • Establish your own humanity.
  • Tell people what to expect.
  • Offer people things to do.
  • Let people choose their own actions.
  • Ask more of people.
  • Acknowledge errors, deficiencies, and misbehaviors.
  • Apologize often for errors, deficiencies, and misbehaviors.
  • Be explicit about “anchoring frames.”
  • Be explicit about changes in official opinion, prediction, or policy.
  • Don’t lie, and don’t tell half-truths.
  • Aim for total candor and transparency.
  • Be careful with risk comparisons.

    There are useful resources available on the web for:

  • a comprehensive and free guide to crisis planning
  • an explanation of how risk is perceived by different audiences
  • the evolution of risk communications
  • In