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Crisis Communications: The Need for Speed

By Joan Todd, Jeff Winton Associates Consultant

We can plan for most things, but inevitably, something unplanned, and unpleasant, will happen to threaten your company and its reputation. It doesn’t matter what it is:

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a rogue employee, a natural disaster, or a consumer injury tied to your organization (real or imagined). How you handle the first hour or two – especially how you communicate to the public – can determine your company’s reputation for many years to come.

The normal human reaction is to circle the wagons. After all, you likely have minimal details on the issue, and you don’t want to speak until you have all the facts. This, however, is a big mistake: the public will interpret your company’s silence as indifference, and possibly admission of guilt, as unfair as that can be. Sadly, others will fill the void, and their information will invariably be wrong and exacerbate the damage. Once out, it’s very hard to overcome. And your company’s silence will allow the disinformation to become “reality.”

So, what to do? While there’s no way to know all details in the first two hours, you absolutely must make a generic statement of caring, and quickly – something acknowledging your awareness, your concern, your efforts to get the details and determine a course of action. Words such as, “We are deeply concerned about the claims made today by so-and-so, and we are using every tool at our disposal to get to the facts.” Or “All we know at this time is that there was fire reported at Building B. Of course, our first priority was to ensure that everyone was evacuated safely. We’re looking into the cause now and will let you know what we find as soon as we have details.”

Importantly, a holding statement is not an admission of guilt. It’s a statement of caring, of being an organization worthy of the public’s trust and confidence. Especially in crisis, that can be the most important thing you do.

Joan Todd brings decades of experience working in media and corporate communications to Jeff Winton Associates. Among her past positions, Joan specialized in issues management and media training for Eli Lilly and Company.

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