Recently I have been helping a client with crisis management, specifically as it relates to communication. In this case, there was a dispute between the board of directors and the spokesperson/public face of the organization. After several tense meetings, the board of directors dismissed the leader, much to the disappointment of many members and donors.
Though difficult situations are never easy to navigate, our communication around them can make matters much worse or much better. Communication is key to keeping your audience with you during crisis.
While every situation is different, there are some communication best practices you should keep in mind when deciding what to say to your stakeholders during an organizational crisis.
Get Ahead of the Narrative
You’ve heard the old saying, “In a negotiation, the first to speak loses.” Well, that’s the opposite when it comes to a crisis. You want to make sure to tell your story and not allow someone else to say it for you. And the only way to do that is to communicate first.
The tendency is to hope the crisis will be contained and that you can manage it with one-on-one meetings. But in high-profile crisis, especially when a public figure is involved, that seldom works. Once you know the news can and will get it out, it’s better to proactively communicate and stay in control of the narrative.
Think Through Your Message
In a crisis, people tend to react and often make statements in an emotionally charged setting that might not be entirely factual. All of us when we are emotional can say things we don’t really mean, and this is the last thing you want to do in a public setting. And comments like “I know for sure…” when you don’t have complete confidence in the facts will come back and undermine any previous statements you have made.
Thinking through your entire message and the critical points to your narrative will give you and your team a consistent script that will help deflect speculations. Though you can’t fully control how people will react (and this requires some agility), thinking through your entire story and not just the immediate response in front of you will help you be consistent and intentional with what you communicate.
Don’t Misjudge Your Audience
In crisis communication, it is easy to assume your audience is sympathetic to your point of view. My experience says differently. Over the years, I have seen even close friends and those I was sure would take my perspective feel otherwise.
As you craft statements and a narrative, it’s always a good idea to think about your worst critic’s point of view and to have that person in mind as you write. Just imagine the person sitting across from you as you are trying to explain what happened. Chances are
you’ll have a much stronger argument.
Be Gracious But Own Your Position.
Most of the time, the problem is not with what we have to say but how we say it. While you always want to come across as genuine, honest, and gracious, you should not waiver on your organization’s position.
People should be able to disagree with how you handled things or the process involved, but at the same time, they should understand and respect your decision based on the facts you present.
Sometimes You Can’t Write Yourself Into Someone’s Heart.
While written statements are powerful and precise, they often lack warmth, nuance, and, well, humanity.
Unfortunately, during public disagreements (we have social media to blame for that), people tend to create villains in order to become heroes of their own stories. And if you or your organization become the villain in the court of public opinion, you will not be able to win with just written statements.
A video interview format that shows someone’s heart, pain and understanding is the most effective way to combat the villain stigma. It’s hard to demonize someone after you see that there is another side of the story and the person, or group, are reasonable people trying to navigate often difficult situations.
Crisis communication is not something I sought out but a need I meet as a consultant. I have seen too many situations turn into disasters when communication is not strategic and well-conceived.
Crisis communication is not an “if” but a “when” for most organizations. You might need it during a contentious disagreement, a lawsuit, a product recall, sexual allegations, an abrupt dismissal, and frankly, anytime where the public opinion scrutiny is on your organization.
If you or your organization need help with crisis communication, contact us here.