10 Ways to Improve Your Crisis Communications

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“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just, do things.” – The Joker (from the movie “The Dark Knight”)

Pearson describes damage limitation as “all efforts made to minimize the negative effects of a crisis on reputation and/or business.” It’s easily articulated but is one of the most challenging aspects of the PR profession.

By their nature crises are somewhat improvisational, but thorough crisis communication planning can mitigate some of the difficulties of reacting to a crisis.

What I want to do in this piece is to offer some best practice pre-crisis tips from PR experts of how to better incorporate crisis communication into your PR plan.

1. Articulating the Problem

Problem Analysis Solution - Crisis Communications

In a crisis, the instinct to react has a tendency to overwhelm the drive to analyse. A recent example cited by Keith Trivitt and Arthur Yann was the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, where the expectation was for PR professionals to “‘sweep up after the parade and serve in the role of savior.” They point out that the public relations problem was far greater than the school’s expectations for managing the problem.

In their textbook Evaluating Public Relations: A Guide to Planning, Research and Measurement, Tom Watson and Paul Noble discuss the need for “critical reflection” of problems in the planning cycle.

In a crisis situation, the problem sometimes isn’t as clear cut as it first appears. The problem needs to be thoroughly vetted before going forward.

2. Situation Analysis

Situation Analysis - Crisis Communications Tips

An important aspect of a crisis communication plan is the situation analysis. It documents the facts and serves to get everyone on the same page. This is much easier said than done, especially when responding to a crisis.

PR expert Joe Grillo discusses how the situation analysis “must contain all relevant information.” He goes on to discuss that it must not only contain the facts but there must consensus about those facts before you can adequately respond to a crisis.

Stacey Getz of Taproot uses the BP Gulf oil spill as an example of a public relations response where there wan’t consensus of the situation analysis. Although she concludes (similar to the Penn State reaction) that the capability for PR to mitigate the situation was limited, disparate messaging stemming from a disagreement about the situation eroded BP’scredibility.

3. Set Reasonable Goals

Set Reasonable Goals - Crisis Communications Tips

Circling back to the examples of BP and Penn State, each entity had unreasonable goals for their crisis management. While in the middle of crisis, it’s difficult to get perspective. Failure to set reasonable goals can harm your long-term credibility.

PR expert Rania Walker uses Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s communication about his drug use as a recent example of setting unreasonable PR goals during a crisis. She explains her reaction to months of denial in light of contrary video evidence:

“As a public relations professional, I expected that at some point during the months of uncertainty over the existence of the elusive crack video, someone in his camp would’ve thought to put a contingency plan in place…. if their goal was to help us see the Mayor as a fallible human bearing responsibility for his actions, they fell well short of the mark.”

4. Focus on Your “Audiences”

Audiences - Crisis Communications Tips

In a crisis (or for any PR plan, really), it is rare that you are messaging to only one audience. Betty Kaman Lee’s study of reactions of audiences to hypothetical plane crash details reinforces how messaging for only one audience could cause consternation in another. In a very elemental example, you could understand how responding appropriately to a crisis for an audience of adults might be construed negatively by a group of children.

One crisis communications best practice from Weber State University is that they’ve clearly identified their crisis communication audiences ahead of time and have explicitly published how they will communicate with them in a crisis.

5. Use Explicit Objectives

Target - Crisis Communications TIps

After articulating reasonable goals, you’ll want to articulate specific objectives. As PR expert Ron Smith explains, objectives differ from goals because they are time-specific, explicit, support goals and most importantly are attainable. In a crisis the presence of properly articulated objectives is critical.

PR expert Dan Berkowitz goes a step further in stating that objectives and their measurement “must focus on awareness or attitudes of key publics.” This is an important consideration in a crisis as it keeps PR expectations from ballooning, as they appear to have done for BP and Penn State.

Want more crisis communications tips? Get advice from Judy Smith, the inspiration for the main character of “Scandal.”

6. Use Message Discipline and Get Buy-In

Crisis Communications Tips

“Not surprisingly, the foundation of any crisis response is the message you are communicating.” – Diana Pisciotta

PR expert Kevin Pollack has some excellent insights into messaging:

  • Be transparent and proactive. Using the example of Rob Ford, in light of the video evidence it’s ridiculous that he didn’t acknowledge his behavior proactively.
  • Messaging applies to social media as well. It’s quite easy to get caught up in spontaneity of social media. It’s important to remind everyone that message discipline applies to all media.
  • Know what you don’t know – PR experts oftentimes will discuss industries and topics that they are unfamiliar with. Be sure to defer to people with expertise instead of “winging it”

PR expert Mark Cowlan also notes that messaging requires executive buy-in as well.

7. Social Media Tactics/Tools

Tools - Crisis Communications

Social media is a shiny object in the PR toolkit. We love to Tweet on Twitter, Post on Facebook, Pin on Pinterest, and Gram on Instagram, but in all facets of PR we have to understand how truly limited these tools and tactics are. Messages on these social platforms rarely (if ever) reach 10 percent of your total audience. I know this isn’t news, but especially in light of a crisis we need to understand the limitations of social messaging.

Iliyana Stareva discusses in her book, Social Media and the Rebirth of PR: The Emergence of Social Media as a Change Driver for PR that it is important to measure social media outcomes in order to understand the actual impact that social messaging can make for PR. For a crisis this is rather difficult.

8. Budget Accordingly

Budget Accordingly - Crisis Communications Tips

One of the reasons that pre-crisis PR planning is valuable is that you can plan for extraordinary expenditures. If you consider any of the cases discussed above and scale then to your worst case scenario, you should be able to keep some budget in reserve purposed to respond to a crisis.

If you don’t budget for a crisis, you may find yourself limited in your capability to respond OR you may find yourself taking from another line item to respond adequately to a crisis.

9. Use Disciplined Staffing Plans

Disciplined Staffing - Crisis Communications Tips

The overarching theme of good crisis management is to be disciplined in all phases of your plan.

According to PR expert Robin Thornton:

“If people know that a protocol is being followed, for example that June Smith is the official spokesperson and she will give an official statement at the end of each day, it is less likely there will be inadvertent/unwanted contact or communication. (Businesses should) ensure every individual in your organization clearly understands his or her responsibility or assignment. And everyone should have a role. At minimum, all employees should be responsible for monitoring media/social media and reporting comments or activity to the designated person on the crisis team.”

10. Evaluate and Measure

Measure - Crisis Communications Tips

As much as possible you need to find ways to measure the success of your plan. As Peter Drucker famously said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

This means using digital media measurement and tools such as the Vocus PR suite to gauge how effectively your messages are being received and internalized by the target publics.

Hopefully this helped to spur some ideas of how you can improve your crisis communication plan. Remember this last bit of wisdom gleaned from the folks at Tipping Point PR:

“Crisis communication plans are NEVER final.”

Are you ready to handle a crisis? See how Vocus can help!

Jim Dougherty is an expert on social media and technology who blogs at Leaders WestFor more marketing advice from Jim, click here.

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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