Crisis Communications – What to Say at the Worst of Times

by Sean Mallen

Crisis Communications is closely connected to reputation protection.   For most of us, our reputation is our most important asset, but it is fragile.  Reputations take a long time to build but can quickly be destroyed. An ill-considered social media posting can cause lasting damage within minutes. 

None of us is at our best in times of crisis.  The performance of spokespeople drops.  Your audience, in times of stress, can only take in a few concise, clear messages.

That’s why preparation is crucial. 

That’s why organizations need a crisis communications plan, which should be brief and include:

  • Core communications team (perhaps CEO, Director of Communications, Legal)
  • Potential crisis scenarios with template responses, including social media
  • In other words, think about the worst things that could happen and then think about how you would respond
  • Responses should be in plain English, avoiding euphemisms and avoiding any minimization of the bad news
  • Names of external crisis communications consultants

The plan should be practiced periodically, and the practice should include media training for spokespeople.

If you learn of an issue within your organization that could have negative reputational consequences, confront it head on and deal with it proactively, before reporters call.  

In times of crisis, fast action is crucial to get ahead of the story because negative and/or false information spreads quickly.  Start with social media because news is disseminated first on twitter.  Even if your initial statements are limited, you are at least inserting yourself into the conversation.

As a default position, decide that you will engage with reporters.  Accept interviews when you can, as soon as you can,  and if you must decline, explain why and at least issue a statement.  If “ambushed”, never run away from a camera and/or reporter. Engage.  Tell your story.

Crisis communications should be guided by three core principles:

  • Empathy
  • Transparency
  • Responsibility

Apology laws specifically protect you from litigation in 9 provinces and 2 territories.  An apology can go a long way towards mitigating reputational damage.  Say you are sorry directly and unreservedly.  If your organization has done something wrong through either mistake or misadventure, promise that you will find out what happened and do everything you can to ensure it never happens again.

Tell the truth, completely and comprehensively.  If a negative story has several threads, proactively disclose them all; otherwise you risk prolonging negative coverage if new bits of information keep seeping out.

Understand that the public’s sympathy will always be with the people who have been harmed in a crisis, never with the leaders of the organization who caused the harm.  Resist the temptation to make public statements about how the affair has been hard on you.  You will get no sympathy and likely draw criticism.

Understand the public sentiment at the time of the crisis.  2020 has been brutal in terms of negative news and stress.  People are scared and feelings are raw.  Bad players will be remembered long after the pandemic passes, as will good players.

The best strategy in times of crisis is to confront it with honesty, humility and empathy.  Do so quickly and comprehensively. 

In sum, the best approach is to do the right thing. 

For more than 30 years Sean was an award-winning reporter, covering major stories across Canada, the United States and around the world. He is now a communications consultant, offering sophisticated, practical and impactful counsel to government, industry, educational institutions and non-profit organizations. Sean specializes in crisis communications, media and presentation training, strategic communications and speech writing, with a clientele that includes multinational corporations, national charities, senior government ministers and leading trade associations.; Twitter: @SeanTMallen