From the Korean ferry to Malaysian flight MH370, the crises in Ukraine and in Kenya, recent months have been full of tragic events where governments and diplomats have had to hone their crisis communications skills. In spite of the immense diversity of protagonists dealing with various crises every day around the globe, there is a pattern of standard mistakes that tend to be made over and over. Having worked for many years for a wide range of governments and corporations going through similar experiences, I have identified seven golden rules that help manage crisis communications.
If you are reading this in the middle of a crisis yourself, then proceed to rule #2! If you are not hit yet by the craziness of a crisis, do not underestimate the importance of well-thought preparation. Training spokespeople, drafting emergency procedures, developing crisis scenarios and running simulations can prove incredibly valuable and dramatically improve your readiness to deal with a crisis when it actually happens.
Silence is not an option
In the first hours or days of a crisis, some organisations tend to quickly build a wall of silence. That always proves to be the wrong strategy. Silence is perceived as a denial of the problem, or even cowardice. It jeopardises the credibility of the institution. The public space is then filled by rumours or messages from other stakeholders and you lose control of the narrative. One should be both proactive and reactive on a 24/7 basis, open and engaging as much as possible with media and stakeholders.
Crises often last longer than we initially forecast. In order to manage them efficiently, good organisation is essential. Set-up a ‘war room,’ identify clear leadership and decision-makers and define the way you want to run the entire process: collecting the information on the ground, monitoring the media and stakeholders’ reactions, defining the strategy and the messages, choosing the communications channels and disseminating messages to interested media and stakeholders.
Control your communication channels
Nothing is more damaging than having different representatives stating contradictory positions. From the very start of a crisis, one should identify and announce the people who are allowed to speak out publicly. The number of spokespeople should be extremely limited. The position should be coherent through all communications: interviews, press conferences, press releases, social media messages, etc. One needs to be in full control of every communication channel.
In times of crisis, governments and corporations often try to reassure the public and explain that everything is under control, even if this is not the case. This often backfires dramatically and leads people to believe that these institutions are not trustworthy. Be candid, tell the truth, clearly state the doubts and uncertainties, and acknowledge any mistakes: arrogance, secrecy and paternalism never play well, particularly when anxiety is high.
Put yourself in the
shoes of the public
Too often, government and corporate crisis communication aims primarily at defending the institution’s position instead of answering the public’s concerns. A self-centered defensive attitude plays badly. Institutions should always try to imagine what it is like to be on the other side and to anticipate people’s questions, worries and emotions. Put yourself in the shoes of your target audience. It will help drafting the right messages and finding a suitable tone.
Be prepared for the worst
I will always remember 21 September 2011 and the explosion of the AZF chemical plant in Toulouse, France, that tragically killed 30 people. That evening, all French TV news programmes showed me, supposedly in a capacity as a representative of the government, explaining that it was too expensive to move the plant outside of the city to protect the local population. An unscrupulous journalist had taken an interview I gave two years before, when I was head of the public service in charge of controlling industrial plants, deleted the date, cut my declaration, taken it out of context and completely modified the sense of my statement. Be prepared for the worst. Always.
Crisis communication is a very difficult and perilous exercise. Modesty must be de rigueur.