Thursday, July 28, 2011

3 Keys to Crisis Comms in the Digital Age - Honesty, Speed and Images

I've been thinking about these three words a lot when it comes to crisis communications. I can't take credit for them as that belongs to U.S. Navy Captain Jeff Breslau, Pubic Affairs Officer for U.S. Pacific Fleet and my boss when I deployed to Japan earlier this year after the earthquake and tsunami. (In addition to my work as a PR guy, I'm a Navy Reserve PAO). 

Crisis comms in the digital age poses some special challenges for communicators, and these three words can serve as nice waypoints as you navigate your organization through major or minor crises.

This seems basic and easy. Which means it is deceptively so. The stress of a crisis makes people do dumb things. Like lie. People also have a natural tendency to want to focus on good news or to try and create happy endings.

("49 of 50 plants didn't blow up today!")

To achieve the "good news," people are likely to minimize facts or omit critical pieces of information that an audience (your key stakeholders) needs to fairly assess the severity of the crisis and accurately judge your organization's performance. Let everyone on your team know that your integrity is the most valuable commodity you have in a crisis and it must not be compromised. Good or bad, facts are what they are. Teach your people to communicate facts clearly and play it straight.  You positively influence your audience with your response to the facts.

Crisis communications in the digital age means that your crisis can be beamed around the world before your company's notification procedures get word to you that there's a problem. Since being first with the news is largely impossible because of technology, you should consider speed in a different way than just getting your first release out in an hour.

There are two keys to speed: identification and reaction. Have your team tuned into the pulse of what's happening outside the company. Your team needs real-time monitoring and the savvy to understand that a company crisis doesn't happen in a vacuum. The dynamics of a crisis can change based on external events. Once identified, empower your team to make the tactical decisions required to communicate events as they unfold. This is important. Empowered to deal with events as they unfold, not as the CEO or VP of Comms wish them to be.

People believe what they see over what they hear. You can have great talking points and a great spokesperson destroyed because the words are out of sync with the images coming from the scene. Another great reason for an external focus during a crisis is that the first images of a crisis will likely not come from inside the organization.

I encourage people I counsel to approach images two ways. First, allow traditional media access as broadly as possible. Second, use internal resources to get images that you can publish to your own social media feeds and websites. These images can do a world of good when the crisis occurs in remote locations or they can supplement external media coverage.

Three words: honesty, speed and images can focus your entire crisis communications effort, but it's just one way to organize your response. James Donnelly of Ketchum PR tells his clients to keep "credibility, focus and imagination" top of mind during a crisis.

"Remove credibility, you have a spin doctor. Remove imagination, you're fighting fires you could have prevented. Remove focus, you have great ideas but nothing gets done," he said.

Most importantly, do what works for you, your team and your company.

What are your crisis communications mantras?

Bill Salvin


  1. Great advise Bill, honesty and truth plus empathy with your audiences are the main stepping stones in any crisis communications case. No wonder on battleships the signal bridge is that part of the vessel that allows the whole fleet to share the same information, and that what empathy is, sharing a common ground, but if you send a corrupted signal (lies) wait too long for sending the signal (speed) and don´t have a good perspective on where your battleships are located (image) you´re bound for total annihilation by the opposing forces.
    I would like your authorization to translate this article into Spanish. I will publish it in several online publications in Latin America directed to Spanish speaking PR professional, being one of those, out of Buenos Aires, Argentina that had gained a solid reputation as an excellent source of specialized information among PR professional throughout the region. Also I will include it in my blog, in both versions, English and Spanish.
    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Héctor Héreter
    San Juan, Puerto Rico

  2. Since 'Truth' is perception, how do you mentor Media/StratCom/Influence messagers about balancing 'Our' truth with 'Their' truth? And sometimes 'honesty' can be really dumb - we're straying way into campaign politics here - more true for counter-insurgency than conventional warfare I grant you - and the need to have loose-coupled (so agile and dynamic and not slaved to a hierarchical chain of command)Information Campaign that underpin the comprehensive, outcomes focussed, synchronised civil-military actions. So 'Honest' yes, that seems to be a no-brainer - but the more intractable issue is who gets the authority to decide what constitutes 'honest'. What, in your opinion, constitutes an example of current best practice/information campaign framework?

  3. Hector-You may translate this into Spanish and as long as you credit the work, you may publish it as you wish. Thanks for reading and for commenting. Good luck.

  4. Christiaan-Truth is a funny thing, isn't it? That's part of the reason I used the word "honesty" in the post. Facts are facts. Even though a crisis situation evolves, facts tend not to change. You may get new facts that cause you to take different actions or communicate different messages, but audiences tend to be able to cope with that. When you say "information campaign" are you talking about it in the military sense where you use communications to have an impact on the adversary? Or are you talking about a communications plan where you have audiences you want to reach with specific messages? Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it.

  5. My firm uses: get it right, get it quick, get it out and get it over.

  6. Maria, those are really good. Thanks for sharing them. The challenge with the last one "get it over" is that the audience generally decides when the crisis is over, not the organization. But the first three lead them to get it over more quickly. I appreciate you reading the post and taking the time to comment.