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Best Practices In Crisis Communications

No business likes to enter crisis mode. As a leader, you may not know how to respond to tough questions and negative media coverage. You can add insult to injury by making misstep after misstep in your actions and statements. You may overspeak and provide a comment that just seems to rub your customers the wrong way. No matter what you do, it isn’t working, and it just gets worse with each move. Handling crisis correctly can save lives, reputations and shareholder value.

Crisis aversion is the most important element of crisis management. Organizations owe it to themselves, stakeholders and stockholders to anticipate worst case scenarios and avoid them. Of course, aversion and planning only go so far. So don’t lose sight of your compass and conscience when you enter unchartered territory–also known as crisis communications.

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Below, members of Forbes Coaches Council provide some lessons learned from handling a crisis incorrectly and how you can avoid making the same mistakes:

1. Listen To Your Team: A crisis is usually considered handled incorrectly when a leader goes rogue and does their own thing without consulting their team. A leader who doesn’t listen to their team will always be blamed when they don’t consult others first. By listening to input and experiences of others on the team, joint decisions can be made and the company will be much more likely to rally around the CEO.

2. Take Responsibility And Apologize: We see, time and time again, CEOs who excuse, equivocate, or give halfhearted and completely insensitive apologies. The primary thing you should do as a CEO is take responsibility and make a full apology, which includes what you will do to make amends for what has happened and what you will do differently in the future. Be honest, be vulnerable, and don’t be afraid to show emotion.

3. Tell The Truth: Transparency is key when dealing with a crisis. So many CEO try to hide the mistakes that they or the company have made for fear of losing profit. But when the truth comes out, they lose much more than profits, they lose reputation and brand equity.

People want to buy from companies they trust and can believe in. Profit and brand values go up when transparency is real.

4. Reflect And Practice: There is no shortage of examples of CEOs who have made mistakes when handling a crisis. Company leaders can learn from this by reflecting on the ones that could impact them, then think about how they would have handled the situation differently. They should also anticipate the “hurricanes on their horizon” then ensure the proper process to handle a crisis is in place in the event it ever surfaces.

5. Create A Diverse Crisis Response Team: When responding to a crisis, it is important for an organization to see the issue from different perspectives before responding. Employing a diverse crisis response team will ensure that your message is not tone deaf to the issue or the community affected by the incident.

6. Discuss, Correct, Move Forward: A wise company leader will know that mistakes are inevitable — the only thing they can do is make sure that big decisions have been discussed among the experts in the company and that decisions have not been taken autocratically. If the entire group makes a wrong decision, it will be a lesson learned. Take corrective action and move on. You have nothing then else but to live and learn.

7. Be Accountable: Trust comes from meeting expectations. When executives ask, “What should we do?” they create a self-referential frame and become self-protective, doing and saying things that make them feel less bad. Instead, they should ask, “What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible company to do when facing this kind of situation?” Doing what reasonable people appropriately expect causes trust to remain or to increase.

8. Remember Communication Is Key: When handling a crisis, leaders must communicate. Remember the ABCs of communication: accuracy, barriers and context. The message that is shared must be truthful and provided with only the facts. Leaders must keep in mind the barriers to communication, which include the length of the message and the method by which it is delivered. The context represents the situation in which it is delivered.

9. Build Trust In Advance:Companies often wait until a crisis to take care of fundamentals that should be already established with customers/clients. When I was advertising for a large quick-service restaurant and there was fear of mad cow disease coming from Europe, we preemptively developed a campaign about the quality of the food. So, understand how you can build trust with your customers/clients and start right away.

10. Be Prepared For A Crisis: Leaders take the time to prepare for everything, from acquisitions and mergers to cocktail parties, but one area that sometimes gets overlooked is crisis aversion and management. One of the best ways to prepare for a crisis is to simulate possible crisis scenarios and practice responses until you feel ready. Practice until you are truly ready for that “news camera in your face” moment and others agree that you are ready.

11. Get The Facts Before You Act: In the midst of an organizational crisis, executives make a bad situation worse by speaking out before they know the facts. Although in a crisis everything seems to move at the speed of light and every stakeholder is demanding action to be taken immediately, systematic decision-making is never more important. Executives should acknowledge that the situation is of high priority and give full attention to the collection of the facts.

12. Demonstrate Empathy: A grievous mistake that CEOs make during times of crisis is to express concerns only about maintaining shareholder value. Although the business should be top of mind, the outward expression of caring about one’s business is caring about its employees. A case in point is BP’s CEO who did not immediately empathize with the fallen employees and their families, leaving BP with a tarnished environmental, business and people record.

13. Understand The Power Of Press And Community: You’ve seen the ugliness that can happen after a CEO handles a crisis incorrectly. This type of negative press intensifies the damage already done and can sometimes leave a permanent mark on his/her reputation. One thing CEOs must learn is that even with all the power and influence they possess in their personal careers, the press is very powerful and “turning off” their communities can prove very damaging.

14. Highlight The Crisis: The most important element company leaders can learn from a CEO handling a crisis incorrectly is to treat it as a priority and engage early with leadership from all functional areas within the organization. By highlighting the crisis, you open the door to potential solutions and next steps from all sides. And this level of transparency leads to an increased versus decreased sense of trust.

15. Treat Others Like You Want To Be Treated: A simple leadership principle that brings clarity to every situation is to treat others as you would want to be treated. When a CEO follows this guiding principle, it helps make things clear. In times of difficulty, the leader is called to act with integrity, compassion, and thoughtfulness. When a leader thinks of others, the pathway becomes clear.

One critical factor in crisis communications is the prioritization of actions and messages. First and foremost, assure safety and minimize harm to all forms of life.

Failure to do so will only magnify the crisis. Of course, the first statements also need to address health and safety if there is such a risk. After that, be sure to gather the facts before you move into reputation management mode. It’s OK to buy time by saying that you are gathering the facts and will issue a statement as soon as possible.

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Crossbow Communications is an award-winning and record-setting brand-management company. We integrate marketing and public affairs for consistency, credibility and maximum impact.

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Author: Gary Chandler