Lather, Rinse, Repeat: How Preparation helps Communicators Respond to Crises

Meg Vanderlaan

By Meg VanderLaan

Every day, in every organization, there is potential for a crisis. Sometimes crises happen, and they generate very little media coverage. Other times, crises hit and the headlines seem to drag on for weeks. As professional communicators, it is important to be prepared for any crisis. Prevention is the best cure, but certainly how you respond to a crisis when it presents itself can make all the difference.

Crisis management is becoming more complicated with so many different channels. People trust digital media and owners of smart phones are now publishers. In November 2014, mobile devices surpassed desktop access to the web for the first time, and it is only growing. We check our phones an average of 150 times per day!

With all of these challenges, corporate brands and individuals can lose credibility immediately, and it is critical to have a foundation for crisis management and a plan to deal with crisis. Most of this work begins before a crisis happens. Here are a few preventive measures:

  • Establish your corporate identity with positive brand and reputation building.
  • Know your allies and partners and work with them. Know the communications team at your client or site so you understand their protocols.
  • Build relationships with the media and always respond to their inquiries–even when you cannot provide information due to legal actions, confidentiality or pending investigation.
  • Know your stakeholders. Be prepared both internally and with your clients or sites. In our case, we have our employees working on client sites every day. It is imperative that we learn about our clients’ crisis plans.
  • Conduct media training with key executives and project managers.
  • Communicate your crisis plan to your employees. Review the plan and review it again.

But as much as you prepare, crises happen. These crises can impact your brand and your reputation, your customer and client impression of your organization, your employees and the communities you serve.

One of my favorite books is Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. In the book, Gonzales reviews multiple crisis situations and each individual response to them. He clearly outlines those who survive and those who do not and points out the importance of the balance of logic and emotion. For me, surviving a crisis is just like that. If you’re too logical, you won’t connect and you will act too robotically. Sometimes crisis situations don’t go by a “book.” If you’re too emotional, you’ll lose focus. You need to think and plan. It’s all about balance.

When you are in a crisis situation, there are several steps to take. It is always interesting to me to watch crises as they unfold and to realize how companies forget two very important words: communication and respect.

During a crisis, honesty and ethical behavior comes through loud and clear in your communication. It’s critical to have carefully planned messaging, use honest, empathetic and human language. Don’t hide from the media, even if you cannot provide much, and consider communicating to all of your stakeholders. Don’t wait too long. Speculation and gossip can tell your story for you, if you don’t jump in to set the scene.

Respect the media and injured parties-they are not adversaries. Avoid saying “No Comment.” While feeling right at the time, it may raise suspicion in the news consumer’s mind. They may wonder: “What are they hiding?” Another act of respect when relating to the media is to respond quickly to media requests. Clarify, don’t speculate. Be consistent, but human, and always use caution when responding in the heat of the moment.

It’s challenging to discuss behaviors and interpersonal connections in a digital world, but digital communications should not be forgotten in your response to crisis. Use digital media to know which conversations are happening and also establish a set course for how far you will engage in social media in response to a crisis.

When things begin to settle down, rebuilding reputation and brand again is important. It reminds me of the instructions on the back of shampoo bottles: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

This is where you engage with communities in volunteering, promote your organization through your allies and stakeholders and tell your story. This is also where you build relationships with the media. Don’t forget to conduct media training and communicate your crisis plan to employees. The best crisis communication begins long before the next crisis occurs.


What’s a 50-Cent Hot Dog Got to do With Customer Experience?
Monetizing Data: Are You Doing Enough?

Let’s connect.