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5 Tips to Sharpen Your Crisis Communications Skills

In today’s divisive political landscape, it’s more important than ever to be prepared when it comes to crisis communications. With social media and ever-evolving technology, the demand for crises to be managed effectively and efficiently has only been amplified. Preparing in advance is vital to safeguarding your brand in challenging moments.

We recently attended two events focused on this important topic. As a member of the mock press corps at Penn State University’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Crisis Leadership Challenge, Ellyn put into practice her media training and crisis communications planning skills. Nina shared a similar experience at PRWeek’s Crisis Communications Conference, learning from experts across business, media and government on the best practices for tactfully managing crisis moments.

Inspired by our experiences at these events, we’ve compiled a few tips to help you prepare your crisis communications plan, and how to hopefully avoid ever having to use it.

1. Do Your Homework in Advance

Ensuring effective crisis communications requires significant pre-crisis effort. Conducting a vulnerability assessment, implementing social listening, and developing a comprehensive crisis communications plan are great places to start. Discovering the existing conversations around your brand and potential problem areas will help to identify where you’ll want to pay particular attention in the future, and brief potential stakeholders.

Setting up news alerts will help to track your brand in live coverage, while staying updated on current events will help you understand the broader news landscape and its relevance to your organization. You’ll also be able to begin drafting potential responses and prepping spokespeople for questions. It’s very important to run through all potential scenarios with your spokesperson so they are fully prepped to answer any difficult questions they could be asked.

And have a process in place for who you bring in when, as well as guiding principles. One of ours is that we talk to our full staff first, before any external communications.

2. Assemble Your Team

To gather information and prepare the right stakeholders, you’ll need to identify who from your team will be involved in any crisis communications decisions. Outlining roles will help to bring clarity to who is and isn’t involved. Not everyone will have a role in crisis communications, and that’s okay! The key is ensuring everyone understands their role before a crisis moment arises.

Internal relationship building is key to the trust and flexibility needed among those involved in crisis moments. Think cross-functionally about who needs to be involved. This may also be an opportunity to bring on a consultant or agency who can provide outside perspective on best practices and vulnerability assessments, without internal bias. A well-established team will operate as a smooth-functioning unit in a crisis scenario.

A critical piece of preparing that team will be training, and limiting, your spokespeople. It’s invaluable to have reputable messengers who can speak to your brand inside and out, both in moments of celebration and high-pressure scenarios. Identifying who those representatives are early on, and keeping them well-versed on the latest within your organization, will ensure you have someone with solid background information and media training to step into crisis communications when necessary. In addition to internal spokespeople, having a third-party stakeholder trained to speak on your behalf will bring credibility to any public response.

3. Watch and Wait, But Not Too Long

Patience is a virtue, and the same can be true in crisis communications. Not every potential crisis warrants a response, and sometimes saying nothing might be your best option. You’ll need to evaluate the scale and relevance of the potential problem to determine if a response from your organization would resolve the situation, or simply amplify it. Consider how relevant a crisis is to your specific audience, how widespread the conversation is and what your response would add to the conversation. Don’t wait too long to respond, but just long enough to determine if any response at all is even appropriate.

Regardless of your external comment, you should always keep your internal staff in mind as a key stakeholder. Communicating with your staff promotes transparency, maintains accountability and builds trust in your people that the organization is aware and handling any crisis moments. Your internal team is your greatest asset – they are your best brand ambassadors. Don’t lose sight of them in the heat of rapid response!

4. Stay Human

With information at everyone’s fingertips, audiences today are smarter than ever. They can easily see through superficial communication and are not shy to let you hear their frustrations on social media. Most crisis communications “fails” occur when we as communicators neglect to acknowledge that we’re speaking to real people. Real people want to hear from real people. The best crisis response shows empathy, timeliness and ownership. So, while it’s important to have a well-developed plan and robust strategy, don’t forget to keep your response relatable and personal. Your audience will thank you for it.

5. Continue Learning

As with any other tactics, crisis communications best practices are constantly evolving. Your brand’s vulnerabilities will continue to shift in this fast-changing landscape, making it important to assess your strategy on a consistent basis. Use your own crisis moments as opportunities to conduct retrospective assessments. Were you prepared to respond? Did you have the necessary tools and data to act efficiently? Were all the right people involved? What did your team execute well? What might you change for the future?

If you haven’t had a recent need to put your own crisis communications plan into action, take those quiet moments to evaluate other crises. Which brands are handling tough moments well? How would you have handled them at your own organization? Do some social listening and see how audiences are reacting in crisis moments. Use that knowledge to inform timely adjustments to your own crisis communications plan to reflect the latest and greatest in terms of brand response.

Photo by Canva Studio / Pexels

Nina Trach
Nina Trach is a Manager of Marketing & Communications at the Ad Council. A graduate of Penn State University, she also loves to cook and craft outside of the office. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Ellyn Fisher
As SVP of marketing and communications at the Ad Council, Ellyn oversees public relations and social media, influencer engagement, media relations and internal communications. She is also the proud mom of two girls, Ruthie and Molly. Connect with her on LinkedIn.


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