Crisis Communication: An Art Not a Science

Corporate crisis communications rules and guidelines are everywhere, and anyone working in communications likely has their own stories to share about a crisis averted or one handled well or one that could have been handled better. That’s the nature of the beast. While there are guidelines and rules of engagement, as one may call them, there is also a lot of gut reaction, hunches, experience-leveraging, straight-talking, emotional intelligence, news knowhow, empathy, ego-checking, and humbleness that are part of the formula for survival and, hopefully, success.

Having worked in crisis communications for 25 years, I have been through my share of true life-and-death tragedies I’d wish on no one, but also many reputational risks such as company or employee missteps, misunderstandings, or unfortunate interactions that become public and often turn viral.  

No two crises are the same. Yes, there are guidelines I preach, including:

  • Assess the risk with a “worst-case scenario” skepticism
  • Half an apology is often worse than none
  • Make sure any action is meaningful action
  • Don’t subject your company to Chinese water torture as a communication strategy

But more than ever, I believe managing through the communications of a crisis is much more of an art than a science, and it’s an art that needs to be practiced and refined to be its best at showtime.  

In this age of fake news, hacks, cameras everywhere, instantaneous sharing, video- going-viral-within-minutes, traditional and social media interplay, and short consumer-attention spans and memories, there’s really a war room mentality at the drop of the word “go,” and those on stage need to be ready. Having that crisis plan helps, but it’s not enough that it is on the share drive until needed. Without practice, you can’t expect your team to flawlessly perform. Your crisis communications plan, process and people need to be tested and always evolving as an insurance policy for your reputation, credibility and social license to operate.

If there is dust gathering on your plan or you’ve been finding it hard to sleep because you’re worried about the “what if,” now is the time refresh the plan and book colleagues for a practice drill so you, your team and your company are ready should the curtain be raised and you find yourself on stage with the spotlight on.

Kristine Naidl, APR, is the executive vice president and managing director of Laughlin Constable’s PR department. With her 25+ year career, she has led strategic communications for clients in a range of industries through even the most difficult of crisis situations.

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Paul Brienza
Paul Brienza
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