When a crisis strikes, there isn’t much time to formulate a response. That’s why I advocate a pro-active preparation strategy to help you absorb the shock faster and take action. Like most communications strategies, responding to a crisis involves reaching and influencing your audience and getting your message heard. And, like most communications approaches, your response plan needs to answer the five journalistic questions: who, what, when, where and why.
There are two parts to the who in a crisis. The first – who do you need to speak to and the second who has been affected.
Who do you need to speak to? Depending on the nature of the crisis itself, there are a number of stakeholder audiences who have needs for information. Some of these audiences will be the inner circle that will help you manage the crisis at hand, some will be supporters who can help amplify your message, some will be critics looking to score points ant you expense while others may be regulators, investigators, politicians, etc. who all have a role to play. The best crisis management preparation plans will have your stakeholders listed and identify the right person(people) from your inner circle who should be responsible for reaching them. A common mistake that many companies make is not informing their employees – employees are a critical audience in times of crisis; they can mitigate damages or make them worse.
The second who in a good response is the who of the crisis – who has been impacted. Whether there are personal injuries, casualties, lay-offs, product tampering, or financial malfeasance, when the crisis strikes, there will be a search for “victims”.
The what of a crisis evolves over time. There is the immediate need to know what just happened and as facts and the situation unfolds, more detail about the situation at hand. Sharing facts as the situation progresses is important but making commitments about what you are doing in the moment and looking forward is the basic building block to recovery.
In releasing the facts about an emerging issue, providing a timeline is critical. As important is giving realistic future dates for any updates on the situation, resolution of certain issues and proactive future preventive action.
On the surface, this looks like a simple question – where did this happen? Beyond the immediate though and perhaps even more important is where can an interested party learn more about the situation or get background on the issue.
In the moment of a crisis, people will look for a reason this situation has happened. Often, the real reasons are unclear for a long time afterwards. The crisis team that can answer the why quickly is lucky. While the responders should never speculate on the reasons why something has happened, what they should do is have answers for obvious vectors of speculation such as corporate policies, employee unrest, corporate culture, etc. If a particular cause could be linked to any number of vectors, say so and commit to a full investigation.
The crisis plan that anticipates and is ready to answer the 5Ws can mean the difference between success and mixed results or even failure when a crisis occurs.