In a crisis, you need to know who you need to tell and what you’re going to tell them.
The “who” are your stakeholders. These are the people who care if your organization lives or dies. Their opinions are the keys to your reputation, before, during and after a crisis. So make sure your plan contains a complete list of all of them. They will be your target publics for your messages during a crisis.
How do you decide who they are? By answering the question, “Who are the people whose opinion about us matters most for our future?” Your first job in any crisis response is to establish meaningful conversations with them. By identifying all of the potential stakeholders you may need to reach, you know exactly who to target and who to make your top priority in any response. You’re going to have an extensive list, but depending upon the nature of a crisis, you will pick and choose what we call “The Right Few” for the situation. These are the people whose opinion matters most for your future given the crisis at hand.
In your plan you want to develop a full menu of target audiences to choose from. This may include (but not be limited to): those effected by the crisis and their families, board members, stockholders, members of the media (traditional and on-line), customers, vendors, strategic partners, distributors, local officials and residents of your surrounding community and (often the most neglected of all) your employees. Do not overlook them! They are the community ambassadors for your brand. They are the face of your organization to your customers and your local community. Employees are often the ones dealing with the brunt of the crisis, so they’ll most likely have to work under challenging conditions. Make no mistake about it, these are the folks who keep your organization running every day and they are the ones who must do just that no matter what’s erupting outside your doors. They deserve to know what the situation is, what you’re doing about it and how it will affect them. Always consider them among your Right Few in a crisis.
Once you decide who you need to reach, think about what failure looks like to them. Then, you’ll have the beginning of the key messages you want to deliver as you respond to a crisis. The more The Right Few know about your intentions and your plan of action, the more confidence they will spread that you’ll come through a crisis intact.
Among the key messages that many initial responses include are:
- “We are fully aware of (the situation) and are doing our best to respond to it.”
- “We take this matter seriously.”
- “We are your source for information about the incident and its aftermath. Count on us to give you the most up-to-date information.”
- “We are a strong organization with a long history of adapting to challenging circumstances.”
It is your mission statement that will provide the backbone of your key messages. In building those key messages we advise our clients to “run back to mission.” This will direct both your responses and your communications. It demonstrates you are committed to the original promise you made to them, and this crisis has not changed that.
One final thought about key messages. Never use the word “promise” in them. It’s tempting, but it’s a bad idea. It harkens back to everyone’s childhood when they attempted to smooth things over with mom by promising never to do that bad thing again. She didn’t buy it and your target audiences won’t either. A promise is something you can’t afford to break, especially after your reputation’s taken a hit. And chances are it will take a hit because you can’t control the future. You simply don’t know what’s about to change and how you’ll need to respond.
So instead of promising something you can’t deliver, how about stating how you’ll prepare for the future and protect your stakeholders? How about talking about what you’ve changed to prevent a similar incident? That demonstrates a lack of arrogance that’s refreshing into today’s marketplace.
A crisis puts you on thin ice. A promise puts some cracks in that ice with the potential for a tumble into chilly waters. Avoid both by expressing care and compassion for those affected by a crisis and an intention to change as a result of it. Those are key messages that will ring true no matter what the calamity.