The state of crisis has become the new normal. Thus, being able to navigate a crisis has become increasingly important for any PR professional. Discover what is required from you in each of the four phases of a crisis.
To say the least, the last few years have presented mankind with many challenges and somewhat a new reality to relate to. Pandemic, lockdowns, inflation, war, and repeated environmental warning signals like excessive heat and drought. In our annual PR report “State of Nordic PR & Communication. Trends and opportunities for 2023 and beyond” six of ten professionals say crisis communication has become more important in their organization due to recent world events. Same number states that navigating in a crisis context is the new normal for PR and communicators.
Crises start for a variety of reasons and come in different shapes and sizes. Some originate from sheer bad judgment, like when Will Smith wandered up during the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock. The Oscars committee itself was criticized for the way the incident was handled, and the actor’s personal brand – despite accepting his first Oscar statuette that night – had been badly damaged. Suddenly a lot of people were forced into crisis management and crisis communications.
And that’s the thing, there’s no guarantee of avoiding a crisis. Sure, punching someone in the face might not help, but your brand can be dragged into a crisis by external circumstances that are beyond the organization’s control. All it takes is one employee acting wrongly while being caught on camera by someone who makes it public (or, as in the case above, one bad joke). Having said that, crisis management begins long before the crisis actually occurs.
What is a crisis?
A crisis is either an event or period that will or might lead to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, or all of society. Crises share certain attributes regardless of the size or type of organization: it poses a threat to the company, include some element of surprise, require action to change the course of events, and demand fast decision-making.
A crisis goes through four phases.
- Pre-crisis stage. This first stage occurs before the crisis itself hits.
- Crisis stage (acute phase)
- Response stage (chronic phase)
- Post-crisis stage (resolution phase)
What is crisis management?
Crisis management is the process of preparing for, managing, and limiting damage. This practice includes anticipating threats, developing strategies to minimize harm, and implementing these strategies when a crisis occurs.
What is crisis communication?
Crisis communication is a strategic approach to corresponding with companies and people during a disruptive event. It refers to technologies and protocols that enable a company to effectively communicate during a crisis. Crisis communication strategies are a critical aspect of crisis management.
How to deal with a crisis?
The first phase of a crisis: Prepare yourself
In today’s always-on social media world, you need to be able to act quickly. In order to do so, you’ll need to be well prepared. There are a lot of things that can and should be done in the pre-crisis stage, when you’re not under a lot of pressure. The goal is preparedness and mitigation of potential crises.
There are several ways to prepare for a crisis. Firstly, you should have a crisis management strategy in place, clearly setting out how you will organize yourself internally if a crisis strikes. This plan should answer questions like what your crisis communications strategy should look like if you need to communicate urgent information, and how you effectively communicate with employees to ensure their well-being and safety. It should also include a designated crisis team and information on who does what when crisis mode is activated. Who decides it’s a crisis situation? Who calls who? Where do you meet (so called war room)? Who keeps a log of all events?
Secondly, the plan should be tested to make sure it works in practice. The easiest way to do this is to have a group of employees plan a fictitious crisis, to be handled as an actual crisis. Make sure you train regularly and update your crisis communication strategy with accurate contact information. It may be a good idea to involve an external crisis communications agency or attend a training course in crisis communication. Another important thing is to train a number of spokespeople so that they feel comfortable in interview situations.
In the pre-crisis phase, you should also proactively monitor potential threats. In today’s digital landscape, a crisis can escalate quickly, and with proper media monitoring you’ll be able to spot trending topics or unusual activity early on. Unfortunately, usually business crises happen suddenly. Yet, according to your company industry, you could foresee what type of emergency your brand could suffer from in the future and set public crisis management guidelines to be prepared and help you quickly get up to speed. Develop key messages to be used in response and consider what questions you could be asked and draft responses to those.
Also make sure to communicate your plan across the organization, ask for feedback and assure that all employees know there is a solid plan when a crisis strikes.
The second phase of a crisis: Assess and alert when inevitable
You notice the first signs of a crisis unfolding and there is no turning back, no way to prevent the crisis. The acute phase has begun, and although it may not feel like it at the time, it is generally the shortest phase. Your focus needs to be swift to assess risk and limit damage. Gather as much known information as possible at the time. What has actually happened, how much is known and confirmed? Who is involved and who is at risk? Who might be affected? And which response plan should be activated? Assess the situations and the risks and activate the most relevant response plan, and make sure to alert any employees who are at risk.
This is the time to stay calm and convey confidence to others, and also make sure the crisis team has the support and resources it needs. If possible in these hybrid times, bring the whole crisis team physically in one place. It will make things a lot easier. Make sure all employees are provided with necessary information regarding the situation.
The third phase of a crisis: Time to respond
By now, you’re dealing with the effects of the crisis and it is important not to lose touch with your humanity and keep control over your feelings. It is at this stage that many companies lose their way. They may respond too quickly, or too slowly. Or, under pressure, tell a lie or show insufficient compassion. The pitfalls are many, to say the least.
In our latest PR report crisis communication expert Hampus Knutsson shares his best advice, and highlights the importance of taking responsibility (but only for what you’ve actually done wrong) and communicating the actions being taken. Take small problems seriously, and act as soon as they occur. Communicate your view but do not forget to stay humble. Let people know what you’re doing to solve the issue and how you’re feeling about it.
Stick to consistent messaging but respond to the crisis first and foremost in the channel where it has taken off. Don’t forget to take actions towards customers, stakeholders, followers, employees etc. Keep updating your employees and liaise with stakeholders as the crisis develops.
The fourth phase of a crisis: Take a deep breath and recover
Now the crisis can be considered over, and while you are going back to business as usual, it is important to use the post-crisis stage to look for ways to better prepare for the next crisis. What did we do well? What could we do better? What have we learned? This is the time to fulfill commitments made during the crisis phase including follow-up information. At the same time, your crisis response team should assess and evaluate the overall business response to the crisis.
Want to become more confident in your crisis communication? Read more about our training here