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4 communication mistakes to avoid in the midst of a crisis

Posted May 4, 2020 9:58 a.m. EDT

Swift and accurate communication is one of the key components of mitigating a crisis. When dealing with an already stressful situation any missteps in messaging can exacerbate the issue. (fizkes/Big Stock Photo)

This article was written for our sponsor, Sinclair Public Affairs.

In the midst of a crisis, swift communication is key. A rapid response not only provides clarity to those involved, but also helps companies and individuals take control of their own narrative.

The longer a response takes, the greater the chance of negative repercussions for a company's operations and reputation.

In light of the current atmosphere of unease caused by the coronavirus crisis, many people are looking to a large swath of professionals — whether they be restaurateurs, elected officials or essential business owners — for some sort of response, and time is of the essence.

"During a crisis, communities want answers immediately. If you don't take time to tell your story, then people start to fill in the gaps themselves," said Ure Loop, director of communications at Sinclair Public Affairs, a North Carolina-based public affairs firm specializing in crisis management, public affairs and media relations. "It's important to get ahead of the curve and start pushing out your narrative. Not only will this help reduce panic and misinformation, but it also provides people with access to information and someone to bring questions to."

While not all crises are as all-encompassing as the one at hand, a time-sensitive response remains critical in any case. At Sinclair, Loop and her colleagues specialize in aiding companies and individuals with rapid response plans in the midst of a crisis while steering clear of these grave communication mistakes.

Mistake 1: A delayed response

Time is of the essence.

A proactive plan of action can help companies and individuals have a response ready directly after a crisis occurs, preventing misinformation and establishing themselves as the main point of contact in the process. Wait too long, however, and other parties may start to fill in the blanks.

"The ideal amount of time to respond following a crisis is as quickly as humanly possible, because if you don't start to write your narrative, other people do. The more proactive you are, the more control you can have and the more people start to trust you," Loop said. "If you're the one who gets in the media and starts to share your narrative, then people recognize that and tend to be more forgiving and place more trust in your organization."

The first statement doesn't have to be thorough, instead, simply acknowledge the crisis and let concerned parties know the issue is being investigated or addressed. Once a bit of time has passed, however, it's important to provide a more comprehensive response. A short statement will buy time, but waiting too long to follow-up leaves a window open for negative press or rumors to circulate.

Mistake 2: Hiding the full truth

When the time comes to release a more complete crisis statement, transparency is the best policy. After all, with the fast-paced social media landscape and 24/7 news cycle in today's day and age, the truth will likely find its way out, one way or another. By taking immediate responsibility, you're able to better control the narrative and potentially gain good grace in the process.

"If your team and your brand comes forward and tells the truth, you have more control and people tend to look to you for information instead of others. If you come out with a half truth, however, almost inevitably the entire story will still spill out one way or another," Loop said. "That's what we see time and time again in communications: if you don't tell the truth, someone else will and it can cause serious repercussions for you."

Not only can a business be harmed by hiding the truth, but falsities can also harm consumers and cause real legal repercussions. For Loop, it all boils down to proactiveness; it's better to fully address the problem and answer questions before they are even asked, as opposed to dealing with increasingly complicated issues further down the road.

Mistake 3: Inconsistency with the media

Depending on the crisis, it may be necessary to make a public statement to media outlets. In these cases, Loop recommends assigning a single point of contact who is well-versed in consistent messaging and talking points. An inexperienced spokesperson or too many points of contact within one organization can generate negative press in already stressful times.

"If people get frustrated with the media, then the conversations will be focused on those 20 seconds when they were frustrated instead of the 30 to 45 minutes of information they do provide," Loop said. "You need someone with proper training who can always keep it cool, always bring it back to the brand, always bring it back to the key messages and stay on task. There should ideally be a spokesperson who can quickly take the reins, adapt to the conversation at hand, and handle the difficult questions that people want, and oftentimes need, answers to."

For those who choose to handle the press on their own, Loop emphasized the importance of preparedness in the form of preliminary research.

"If you know who you'll be sitting down with, do as much research as you can on them and what they write about. If you're meeting with a journalist whose focus is on education, for example, then you want to send your key messages about how this issue is going to specifically impact education, instead of just giving general points," Loop said. "Try to tailor it to what is going to interest their readers, what's going to get it printed. At Sinclair, we always recommend coming up with a key message and a couple of supporting points so that, when in doubt, you can always bring it back to the key message."

While it is ideal to have a single point of contact that can focus on the key message and build familiarity with the media, it's likely inevitable that other individuals in the company will be asked about the crisis, whether from media outlets or simply curious friends and family.

To keep messaging as consistent as possible, businesses should also take care to provide clear communication on an internal level. Send out talking points, maintain transparency with employees and keep a point person or manager available to field any questions.

Mistake 4: Communication without action

In the case of a crisis, this maxim holds true: actions speak louder than words.

Unless a business or individual makes the necessary moves to investigate or mitigate a crisis, then any communication they provide is hollow, and the media and consumers will notice the lack of action.

"It starts with communication, but it filters down to action. Communication only works if you're also working. If your communications don't match up to the impact that your company is having or your internal motivations and actions, then it can only do so much," Loop said. "Everything you say needs to be backed up with concrete steps taken by your brand and organization."

For example, a large portion of Sinclair's clients are involved in politics. In the midst of COVID-19, communication and action has been invaluable in moderating the crisis and keeping constituents informed.

For many public officials, traditional campaigning and fundraising has been put on the backburner, while providing accurate information and helpful resources for those in need has become the priority.

According to Loop, this pivot can be a helpful way of campaigning in and of itself.

"Many people have found themselves filing for unemployment, working reduced hours, or worrying about upcoming bill payments. Instead of campaigning, we advise becoming a point of contact to connect individuals with the help they need," Loop said. "What does the stimulus bill mean? Where can I go to file for unemployment? How does the North Carolina unemployment system change now that we've passed new bills? How is FEMA getting impacted? Amongst all of that communication, there is still branding happening."

"On top of that, if you can stop by a local restaurant and grab a takeout meal, actions like that show people that you're not in any different position than they are. You're cooped up in your house just the same as everyone else, but you're also spreading a narrative with the positive, concrete ways that you're dealing with this," Loop finished.

This article was written for our sponsor, Sinclair Public Affairs.

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