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Five Lessons in Crisis Communications

Chief communications officers (CCO) and the entire communications/PR team at every business and organization will face no greater challenge than a real, full-blown crisis. It is the only time that your work will be scrutinized and evaluated in real-time; that one slip-up can cost you your job; and that success will never be forgotten. 

All eyes will be on you. Fortunately, you are not alone. All eyes will be on everyone in the C-Suite, too, especially the chief executive officer (CEO) and the general counsel (GC).

Crises never evolve as planned, that’s why they are crises. Your long-term planning efforts, while important, will not be enough. You may have a plan and protocols in place, draft statements ready to dust off, and a dark website ready to turn on, but it will not be sufficient.

Here are five lessons that will help you manage a crisis:

1. Know, and have a plan to address your business’s or organization’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For example, every business or organization that collects customer, client or member data should have a plan to address a data breach. How will you notify customers that their personal proprietary information (PPI) has been compromised? How will you maintain the trust of your employees, if their financial information and medical records are stolen? Once you have the list, engage important stakeholders as you develop your crisis management plans. Do this through strategy workshops, training sessions and scenario planning exercises.

2. Don’t panic! The reality is that crises happen all the time. Whatever your business or organization is facing, you are not alone; it may just seem that way. And most crises, large and small, are managed successfully. As communicators, your first obligation is to protect and nurture your company’s or organization’s brand through the crisis. But your real goal should be to emerge from the crisis with your brand enhanced. Think Tylenol.

3. Manage the issue, not the crisis (sometimes they are the same thing). You are going to need help from the rest of the business or organization to do this. It’s your job to convince them that it’s the right thing to do for the brand. Boeing, for example, has done a poor job managing the crisis involving two crashes of its 737 MAX 8 aircraft. First, the company was reluctant to point the finger at the automatic stall prevention system, suggesting that poor pilot training or pilot error may have been involved. Then, it took the CEO too long to say, “we are sorry.” Boeing managed the crisis and tried to assign or apportion blame. The company did not manage the issue.

4. You don’t have to put your CE0 front and center. The decision to use or not to use your CEO to address a crisis is a judgment call involving the severity and complexity of the crisis, how long it will take to resolve the underlying issue, the style and comfort level of the CEO or organization leader, and the bench strength on the leadership team. For example, if the crisis du jour is a cyberattack, your CTO may be the best person to be the face of the business or organization. If it is an employee related crisis involving employment discrimination or sexual harassment, the head of HR may be best.

5. Send lawyers, guns and money! There is an unavoidable conflict between CCOs and their team and GCs and the lawyers when managing a crisis. It can be subtle. It can be open, obvious and noisy. It is always there. CCOs and their teams are communicators. We are trained to communicate. GCs and their legal teams are trained not to ask questions, if they do not already know the answer. They will press to release the least amount of information into an environment that is information hungry. Communicators are forward looking and, frequently, optimistic. For us, a crisis is an opportunity for our company or organization and for its leaders to lead. Lawyers are, as they should be, backward looking, more interested in what happened rather than what can happen. Their job is to limit exposure, limit liability and protect the business or organization and its leaders.

Crisis communications is hard because communications cannot solve a crisis. It can, if a pending crisis is based on unfair or inaccurate information, deflect a potential crisis. It can inform key stakeholders of steps the company or organization is taking to manage the underlying issue. And effective crisis communications can earn trust and time for the underlying issue to be resolved.

Marty Machowsky, an adjunct instructor for the WVU Integrated Marketing Communications master’s degree program, is a communications and marketing professional with expertise in technology, health care, corporate affairs, financial services and crisis communications. He has supported a broad range of clients including GE, Logitech, Microsoft, Pfizer, AT&T, Samsung, Verizon, S&P, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and startups. He is currently president of 90Degree Communications.