Crisis Communication: Crafting & Staying on Message

Among the many ways a crisis can snowball, an important consideration that is too often overlooked is how critical internal stakeholder communications are to crisis communications.

Those closest to you – staff, board members, alumni, students, etc. – can be your greatest ambassadors in the crisis and also your loudest critics. The natural instinct is to want to protect your organization’s reputation from further damage by going to the outside first and stopping the crisis train in its tracks. If you only do that, and you neglect to inform those closest to you first, they will feel overlooked and misled. The damage can be further compounded if you find out all too late that the people who needed to buy into your strategy or message, such as a board of directors, are not aligned or do not agree with the narrative you’re presenting to the public.

This is true not only for responding to a crisis in the moment but in preparing for difficult news ahead and just about any complex communications issue.


Internal & External Communications

Always notify your internal audiences as stakeholders first (and quickly) in a crisis. Twitter is not where you want them to get their information.

For example, if you’re preparing for a leadership change, or you have become aware of an accusation of sexual misconduct on campus, talking to, identifying, and prioritizing your internal audiences is vital to getting the buy-in that you need and preventing a difficult situation from escalating.

The first step is to get your team on message to ensure that your story is consistent.

  1. Get your crisis team together, and if you don’t know who is on your crisis team, now is a great time to find out, and make sure that you have the right representation at the table depending on the circumstance.
  2. Brief everybody on the situation, the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why.
  3. Establish your talking points so that no matter who is delivering your message, to which audience, it is consistent across the board. Inconsistencies are what initiate chatter and an issue can blow up before you’re prepared to address it.


Setting Expectations

As soon as you talk to your internal stakeholders, you must be prepared to speak with the media. You never know how quickly people are going to talk.

Even if you have an assumption of confidentiality, it’s natural for people to spread the word, so you cannot predict when a leak will happen.

In a crisis, you’re not always going to know everything in the moment. You can, however, set the stage for when you will return with some form of information. We often see this with criminal cases or manhunts. When you see a chief of police come on TV for a live press conference, oftentimes you’ll see that there’s not necessarily an update, but they are recognizing and acknowledging that people are anxious. What matters more than anything is acknowledgment of the attention being paid to the issue and recognition that a routine update with no new information is better than no updates at all, which can lead to speculation.

If necessary, set up key communications channels to reach out. If there’s a school shooting, do you have a phone line with a status recorded? Do you have an email address where people can ask questions? Given the speed at which crises can evolve, you do not want to be disadvantaged from any angle.


Social Media

Social Media may be one of the least controllable channels that you’re working with. You can control what you post to your channels but not the hundreds (if not thousands) of people pushing back at you. Often social media becomes not only a media channel that you’re navigating but also a customer service channel. In a crisis, people flock to social to see what’s happening on the ground.

Most social media platforms now have the option to place a pinned statement to your page so it doesn’t get lost in the feed, which can be a great way for you to communicate in a space that’s consistent.

If appropriate, your social media team can respond to comments and questions occurring from your posts paying careful attention to course-correcting any false or damaging information. Your social media team can redirect people and correct false information in real-time to keep everyone informed while maintaining transparency.

To do this effectively, it is critical to have someone (or several people) dedicated to managing social media.


Social Media Managers

Your communication office may be a lean, mean communication machine, but when it comes to a crisis, if you have a team of one or two, that may not be enough depending on the scale. These days, social media is a full-time job even when your institution isn’t in crisis mode.

Having a plan in place to bring more people in, even if it’s not their primary role, will give you the extra eyes, ears, and hands to cover the customer service angle of social. It can also provide backup for a particularly traumatizing situation, which can be incredibly draining in the social media space when chatter is 24/7.

If a crisis is long-term and it’s going to last a couple of days, you may need a monitor after business hours. Assigning someone to observe social media comments and articles from the media after the workday window is an important factor for success.


Understanding your Audience

Nothing about a crisis is relaxing and it will be stressful. Your audience is under stress, too, so you need to remember to remain calm. Social media and the re-sharing of online content can perpetuate a lot of emotions, and sometimes inaccuracy. The way things are discussed on a broader scale allows everyone to participate in the conversation, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The most important thing to remember is not to feed into that frenzy.

The frequency of delicate, hot-button issues getting media attention is at an all-time high. Understanding the variety of perspectives and diversity of your audience is paramount when you’re communicating across any of these scenarios.

What can you do to make your plan more inclusive? How can you prepare for a crisis to meet a variety of needs and wants?

Statistically, different races within the BIPOC population use social media differently. TikTok and Snapchat and YouTube video usage are a lot higher among Black, Hispanic, and Asian audiences than they are with white audiences. Do you have a strategy for reaching out to groups on those channels? If you don’t, you need to start diversifying your social channel mix.


Cultural Relevance

Considering the cultural relevance of your messaging is a must for your overall day-to-day PR messaging, but it’s especially true in a crisis.

In some instances, it might be better to remain silent and listen to a conversation to formulate how your actions might change moving forward.

Or, if a message absolutely must be shared, think through the cultural relevance. Who do you want at the table in creating that message?

Does your team reflect the diverse culture of the makeup of your audience?

It’s becoming increasingly obvious when a statement about diversity and inclusion is written by a table full of 65-year-old white men. Colleges and universities need to be honest about that.

It’s 2022. Leaders must think through the ramifications of their actions to a call-out, culture-centric public. The last thing you want to do is respond in a crisis only to seem performative and unengaged.

Some groups in your audience may have fewer advantages or are consistently marginalized, and your communication strategy and messaging need to shift to reach them on a human level.


Embracing empathy

Sometimes, you simply must admit when you are wrong. Empathy is a key component of crisis communications today. At one time, crisis communication was very focused on putting a spin on an issue to ignore it or gaslight the audience or sweep it under the rug. That’s why 30 years ago PR could get a bad rap, and you’ll get called out on that today on similar practices. Audiences are demanding accountability for pretty much any crisis that you are dealing with. Working that into your message will allow your institution more grace.

These are tricky issues, and the first step is just admitting how complicated and complex it is to deal with. Take a step back to soak in the emotions of those who are angriest and put yourself in their shoes. What would you want to hear if this was personally affecting you?

In any crisis, you must acknowledge what is at stake and the emotions of those impacted. The audience wants to know you’re listening to them and working towards solutions while being as transparent as possible during the process.

About the Author

Rachel Spencer

Rachel’s expertise in strategic planning, qualitative research, brand messaging, public relations, and crisis communications has proven integral to AccessU for over 16 years. She began her career at a health and government-focused PR agency in Washington, DC, where she mastered the art of media relations. She later became the primary...

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