Picture: 123RF/Deyan Georgiev
Picture: 123RF/Deyan Georgiev

Crisis communication – the PR, media and communication process through which a business deals with high-profile negative issues – is a vital aspect of reputation management. Limiting the damage to a business or brand is one of the most important mandates of a PR professional. The digital landscape has added a layer of complexity to the crisis communication process, with the power of social media cutting response times from hours to mere minutes. 

Over the past year, several prominent organisations have made headlines for all the wrong reasons. It would have helped each of these organisations immensely to have had a comprehensive crisis communication strategy in place, yet all too often a crisis process and team is deemed an unnecessary expense.

While all organisations will at times find themselves in undesirable situations, few are effectively prepared to deal with them. 

The importance of a crisis communication strategy

Should a crisis of any type arise, companies should have a team in place to implement a swift, unified and comprehensive response. In addition, investigation and evaluation of serious incidents (for the purpose of preventing such situations or minimising their impact in the future) are key, as is the appointment of an experienced team to handle public and internal communication related to the event.

In this context, it is the PR professional’s role to guide and advise their clients as well as structure and monitor what they say and do. As such, PR professionals are an integral part of crisis management teams.

Having a crisis communication plan in place is a proactive measure that will make dealing with the crisis and communicating with stakeholders much easier. Preparation is a key aspect of effectively managing a crisis, while also instilling a sense of confidence among those affected – whether internally or externally. Prevention also involves seeking to reduce known risks that could lead to a crisis.

A little media training goes a long way

Company representatives who have been selected as spokespeople to deal with the media feel a greater sense of confidence in their role if they have undergone media training.

Before the media is briefed or a statement is issued, crisis management teams need to research the situation and get to the heart of the story, asking the hard questions to get there. Three key messages must be incorporated into all communication and there should be no deviation from these points. Spokespeople should not be negative, pass blame or offer misleading information. Importantly, they should remain calm under pressure, with a professional and confident demeanour.

Key learnings from past experience

Senior management must receive adequate media training to ensure they are fluent in media management and crisis response. Ideally, media and crisis training ought to be extended to switchboard and reception personnel to guarantee that they are educated around how to deal with  inquiries from the media and how to guide calls to the relevant spokesperson. Even a phrase such as “No comment” could have a detrimental effect. Media training should encompass not only dealing with interviews but also how to respond to unsolicited comments on social media.

Use social media to your advantage

In a crisis situation, and under the guidance of a PR professional, social media can be used to help the client manage the crisis in the digital space. This approach should be planned, implemented, controlled and maintained by a professional with the relevant social media skills.

There are pros and cons to consider when taking to social media to communicate around a crisis. Social media gives PR professionals an instant voice, presence and unlimited reach. This can be utilised to reassure the public that the situation is being managed and a response is imminent. To this end, the crisis team can introduce specific hashtags to effectively track the campaign, or make it trend or go viral. This is key when it comes to evaluating crisis communication efforts and gathering information on the public’s response.

The big take-out

With digital and social media adding a host of platforms for a company crisis to elevate in a matter of minutes, companies cannot afford not to be prepared. It’s become essential to have a sound crisis strategy in place.

Unfortunately, many people mistrust information they see on social media. Moreover, should the stats or information provided be inaccurate, there will be further damage to the organisation’s reputation – just think of the consequences of fake news on social media.

A flexible crisis communication plan that can be continually updated, together with a professional PR team to carry it out at the drop of a hat, is not a nice-to-have but an essential part of a communications strategy. Corporate crises can create three major threats: public safety, financial loss and reputational damage. Are you willing to risk it?

Leago Monareng is a PR consultant at Glasshouse Communication Management