3 Best Practices for Communicating During a Crisis

From jobsite accidents to employee or management misdeeds, no business is immune from crisis situations — including the roofing sector. Contractors, manufacturers, distributors, and stakeholders throughout the supply chain do their best to safeguard against crisis situations and hope such events will not occur. But of course, hope is not a strategy and even the most stringent procedures cannot guarantee a crisis will not damage a business’s operations or its reputation.

As with many aspects of managing a business, advance consideration and planning can help minimize the consequences of a crisis situation. Have you asked yourself, “What would I do if a crisis situation threatened my business and the media/social media were at my door?”

A good place to start is by understanding not all crisis situations are the same. Most crises fall into one of two categories: “sudden” or “smoldering.” As the name implies, a sudden crisis arises without warning. Industrial accidents, terrorism, workplace violence and acts of God are all examples of sudden crisis situations. There is little time to prepare in these events and they are more likely to generate the public’s sympathy. In contrast, smoldering crisis events generally emerge over time and present problems not generally known that could generate negative public sentiment if they become public. Examples of smoldering crisis situations include business concerns such as audit findings, drug use by an employee, board mismanagement or a potential regulatory violation. A smoldering crisis may rapidly evolve into a sudden crisis if the news becomes public on the news or social media. As opposed to sudden crises, smoldering crisis events are rarely viewed positively.

Three Keys to Crisis Communication

Regardless of whether a crisis is sudden or smoldering, communication is imperative. A crisis communications plan can help manage either type of crisis. The plan should outline a central spokesperson to deliver all messages and include specific processes for who within the organization to contact in the event a team member is contacted by the media. While the details of a crisis management plan are beyond the scope of this column, every crisis management plan requires communication. When crafting crisis communications, three “best practices” can be applied to most situations. These practices are:

1. Tell the truth. Rarely are all of the facts readily available as a crisis situation unfolds. Yet members of the media are trained to “demand the facts” as news is still breaking. Obviously, trade secrets, confidentiality agreements and legal issues typically limit what can be disclosed. And the reality is, many times an organization simply does not know all of the details surrounding an unfortunate event. As such, it can be tempting to refrain from making any statement during a crisis situation or uttering the words “no comment.” But evasiveness naturally breeds suspicion. While organizations should never speculate during a crisis, they can share some truths about what they are doing.

A good technique to use in these situation is the “why plus what” approach. For example, “While not all of the facts are clear based on the investigation underway at the site of the accident, we are cooperating with first responders and posting updates on our website.”

The “why plus what” approach is a very useful technique for communicating without speculating or refraining from comment. Using this approach, spokespersons explain why they cannot elaborate and follow up with what they can share right now. For example: “While I can’t speculate about the root cause as research is still underway, what I can tell you is (approved statement).” A classic example of this technique used by reporters covering unfolding stories is, “While the details are still emerging, what we do know is ¼”

2. Tell it fast and with empathy. Not only is it important to tell the truth (what you can tell) quickly, but it is important to be prompt in response and empathetic to those affected by the situation. History provides some unfortunate examples of the damage a company can suffer from delaying its response, or not responding empathetically. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska is a good example of the damage that can arise when timeliness and empathy are lacking. The company waited a full week to address the media following the oil spill. When the executive did speak in a TV interview, he delivered a strong impression that he didn’t really care about the environmental impact of the disaster, committing a huge PR cardinal sin — lack of empathy.

More than 20 years later, after another oil disaster, another oil executive committed a crucial PR blunder. (Google “Tony Hayward get my life back.”) BP former CEO Tony Hayward conducted a number of high-quality media interviews before complaining halfway through a conversation with a reporter, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” His comment demonstrated a lack of sympathy for the many lives lost and the hundreds of jobs lost due to the incident’s aftermath throughout the affected area. Unlike the Exxon leader’s interview, BP’s situation unfolded in the social media era, amplifying the damage of the negative PR as the unfortunate interview went viral.

In any crisis situation, it is imperative for an organization’s leadership to put themselves in the shoes of those affected. This means thinking like a customer — and just as important talking like a customer — personally affected by the situation. Leaders should acknowledge the affected parties’ fears and frustrations. In stark contrast to the corporate speak of a prepared statement, empathy acknowledges that the speaker feels and shares the customer’s pain. Effective crisis messages project empathy and concern while explaining clearly and succinctly what can be shared. The best examples also provide perspective by framing the issue in context. For example, “Each year, our operations produce XX metric tons of product without incident.”

3. Tell your employees first. Despite all the efforts companies invest in developing messages for their website and official statements, a company’s people are usually the most sought-after and trusted source of information. Thus, in crisis situations, it is a company’s people who will receive questions from customers, friends and family about what’s “really” taking place. Employees must be a key audience in any crisis management plan. The plan should educate employees on the issue and provide clear information on how to direct inquiries to the appropriate spokesperson.

Whether it’s a sudden or smoldering crisis, the crisis communications best practices outlined above coupled with a crisis management plan can help members of the roofing community navigate the challenge.

About the author: Susan Miller is director of public relations at 5MetaCom, a marketing agency for companies selling technical and scientific products, including building products.