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By Renee A. Malone, APR

When we think about crisis communication, sad and infuriating tragedies like mass shootings or other acts of violence come to mind. While those are indeed crises, reputation risks are communication emergencies that most PR pros will more frequently

As you become more skilled in this area, you quickly learn that helping leadership teams solve a difficult business problem can help avert that type of crisis altogether. PR pros must lean into their unique knowledge and perspectives in a business setting to protect the company or organization, even at the pre-crisis stage.

One of the most widely talked about examples of a preventable crisis is BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion over a decade ago, killing 11, injuring 17 and spilling 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. NBC referred to it as “bumbling public relations efforts,” while others called the company responses callous and insensitive.

The failure of BP’s initial crisis response is what most have studied but digging deeper into the root cause of the crisis, you’ll find it reportedly sprouted from several poorly thought-out business decisions involving cost-cutting and safety protocols.

When making those choices, the avoidable parts typically lie with the organization’s process and planning. Were communication experts allowed to support internal communication of safety procedures and layoffs or crisis communication planning in the
event of an unavoidable disaster?

All communications scholars agree that communication expertise would have greatly supported the crisis response, but I’d add that proper pre-crisis support could have potentially made a lifesaving or at least a reputation-sparing difference.

Listen intently.

Over the past 17 years as the owner of a PR and digital marketing firm, we have supported school districts, businesses and government organizations with several communication-related needs, including managing crises. In most instances, we find the crisis was avoidable, as the voice of a communications expert remained silent, absent or unheard.

If you have a seat at the table, then listen intently to company deliberations and decisions with the needs of and effects on the organization’s key stakeholders in mind. For example, if leadership indicates a looming mass layoff, ask clarifying questions like these to support those affected and prevent reputation issues:

  • Have you considered other cost-cutting solutions that could create less impact on
    our stakeholders?
  • How were the layoff selections made?
  • How will the cuts affect our overall customer service or effectiveness?
  • How can we support displaced workers in finding new opportunities?
  • What is the timeline so we can plan and properly execute a communications and
    engagement strategy?

If you hear a lack of thoughtful consideration of other solutions, racial or economic disparities regarding the cuts, potential essential service gaps (like communication), or a lack of support for those affected, then use your voice and explain why this could bubble up to a crisis.

Provide proactive advice and planning to prevent hours of reactive crisis management in any situation.
Here are a few tips:

  • Read readily available crisis management books and resources or attend workshops on the topic and prepare your crisis management plan now.
  • Set aside ongoing research and communication/engagement planning time.
    (Remember, the organization’s strategic comms plan is a living document.)
  • Keep the lines of two-way communication open with key stakeholder groups.
  • Remain fully present and vocal in leadership meetings.

One of our clients, the Shelby County Election Commission, faced a myriad of challengeswhen we began working together two years ago. They faced a lawsuit from their funding body and a separate one from a voter, as well as mounting complaints from stakeholders and a barrage of media requests.

These challenges seemed commonplace to them yet pointed to one glaring gap — communication. Everyone in the organization is smart, kind and knowledgeable when administering elections, but expert communication and engagement were blind spots.

Like any communicator, we began our support with research, plan creation and execution to open the door for two-way communication and authentic engagement. We also kept the message simple and straightforward. Most important, we earned the trust of leadership in supporting decision-making, which led to the realization that siloed choices and the absence of clear and consistent communication caused the prior issues. Avoidable.

Be accountable.

When the unavoidable or the avoidable happens despite our pre-crisis efforts, one of my favorite crisis experts and foremost authorities, Dr. Timothy Coombs, with whom I’ve shared a panel, suggests we should be quick, consistent, honest, empathetic and
accountable in our crisis responses.

KFC is a great example of a company that seemingly checked most of Dr. Coombs’ crisis management boxes a few years ago and creatively managed a tough situation well. The chicken food chain literally ran out of chicken following a supplier change (another pre-crisis business decision) in the U.K. Their response was a daring stroke of genius as they created an ad that took ownership, apologized, and even poked fun at themselves. The ad partially rearranged the company name’s letters to spell out “FCK” on their chicken bucket.

According to Campaign, a global online publication, the ad, which appeared in only two U.K. newspapers, prompted more than 700 press articles and TV discussions for an audience of 797 million worldwide and 219 million social-media users.

Wow! It’s a good thing that good communicators had a seat at the table for the crisis response. Hopefully, they’re also in a valued position with the organization for all decisions, not just crisis management.