Reporters with microphones

Facing a crisis? Communication and empathy are key.

Crisis! It’s a stressful word that can be used to describe anything from an explosion in your office, to a data breach, to one of your executives getting caught doing something unseemly. This is what to do when facing a crisis.

Regardless of the type of crisis, many of the steps you should take to resolve it are the same. Communicate early and as often as needed to keep your stakeholders informed – and to keep their trust. 

Identify key stakeholders

Key stakeholders may vary depending on the type of crisis. For example, if people may have been injured, their families are key stakeholders. If products have been damaged, your clients are key stakeholders. Make sure you know your target audiences and prioritize them. For example, when possible, a family member of an injured employee should find out about his or her relative before seeing it on the news. 

Also, remember your employees. They are walking representatives of your brand. They will be concerned, and many of them will be getting questions from clients. Ensure they have the information they need and that they know the process for handling questions.

In a large crisis, you will need to communicate to all of your stakeholders: employees, clients, prospects, investors, news media, etc. 

Make a Message Map

Even if the phone is ringing nonstop and the media are beating down your door, take at least a few minutes to make a simple Message Map. Even if it’s short, it will help you stay on message when you speak with your stakeholders. 

Keep in mind that you only need one Message Map. Once you’ve created it, you can then highlight in different colors which statements are most important to each type of stakeholder. 

Use the Message Map in all your communications, and make sure you emphasize the points that matter to each type of stakeholder.

Communicate early

In most crisis situations, you don’t have all of the information at once. It unfolds. Because of this fact, many of my clients tell me they want to wait to communicate until they have all the facts. 

This is a mistake. If you wait to communicate, your stakeholders may think you are hiding information from them and lose trust in your organization.

Instead, let the public and your stakeholders know that you are aware of the crisis. Acknowledge the crisis, even if you don’t have all the facts. Getting out in front of the crisis, before the media or others can accuse you of wrongdoing or hiding information, is essential. 

For example, you might say something like this: “Unfortunately, there was an explosion at our Chicago facility earlier today. We don’t yet know the cause or if anyone was injured. Emergency personnel are on the scene, and our first concern is the safety of everyone who was onsite. We will let you know as soon as we have more information.” 

In making such a statement, you are letting your stakeholders know that you are aware of the situation and that you are concerned for the safety of your employees and others.

Getting out early and showing awareness and concern will make the public much more likely to give you time to gather more information versus attacking you for remaining silent.

Instill a sense of urgency internally

Another reason my clients often give when they fail to communicate early is length of time for messaging sign-off by all the necessary internal stakeholders. The list of approvals can be long as it often ranges from legal to finance to department heads and even board members. 

Do everything you can to get the right people together quickly. Ask people to send delegates if they can’t attend a meeting or call. 

Communicate early during a crisis. Coworkers gathered in a room during a crisis.
Get your internal stakeholders on the same page quickly to communicate fast in a crisis.

Agree on a holding statement as fast as possible, which will then give you time to agree on the next level of communications. 

You may need to remind people that if you don’t communicate quickly, the media or your competitors will do it for you. Then, instead of creating your message, you’re in a position to react to someone else’s. 

Communicate often when facing a crisis

Communicating once is not enough. As the crisis unfolds, provide regular updates to your stakeholders and the media. The frequency will vary as you uncover more information. Be proactive when you have new information to share. And answer all calls promptly, even if it means bringing in more personnel to help. 

Even if you have no new information to offer, your stakeholders will respect and remember that you were available to try to answer their questions. 

One important thing to remember here is the priority of your stakeholders. If you need to inform family members or clients first, do so. Even if you have new information when a reporter calls, let the reporter know you will call them back as soon as you can. Then inform the people who need to know before it hits the news before calling the reporter back.

Update your Message Map

As you get new information, make sure to update your Message Map so it is current and relevant. Keep it handy during phone calls, and make sure you know it well for any live appearances where you won’t have it in front of you. 

Express empathy

Above all, express empathy in all of your statements and communications. 

Hopefully many companies learned from the Lululemon crisis in 2014, when the founder blamed the customers for a faulty product by saying, “quite frankly some women’s bodies just actually don’t work for it.”

Imagine how differently the situation would have been if he had instead simply apologized for releasing a faulty product and expressing empathy for customers.

Regardless of who or what caused the crisis, pointing fingers and placing blame often backfires. Instead, first express empathy for anyone harmed or inconvenienced (such as because of a late product delivery), and fix the issue as quickly as possible. 

If you choose to place responsibility on someone or another organization, only do so once you have the facts and are prepared for any consequences.

Debrief and apply lessons learned

Because crises take us by surprise and unfold quickly, they are difficult to respond to and recover from. Whether a spokesperson is nervous and says the wrong word or phrase, you can’t get your internal stakeholders to agree on a message, or you simply don’t know about it until the media have published, the likelihood of something going wrong is high. 

That’s why it’s important to debrief after every crisis (though hopefully you don’t have them often), and apply lessons learned to your crisis plan

Have a crisis plan so you can stay afloat during a crisis. Person staying afloat among sharks.
Applying lessons learned will help you stay afloat in a future crisis.

No one likes a crisis. With the right tools, response plan, and empathy, you can help your organization handle one as smoothly as possible. 

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