Turning Lead into Gold: The Alchemy of Crisis Communication

Published October 14, 2013
Crisis Management Alchemy - Full Image

The Crisis

We’ve all dealt with it: The rogue tweet, the customer service meltdown, the accidental reply all, the billboard with the double entendre, the day your one defective product gets sent to the loudest guy on the internet.

We usually call it “a crisis”.  I can think of nothing that puts the reputation of a brand and the team behind it to the test more than a crisis.  Folks get emotional, people demand answers, customers cancel orders, and everyone starts pointing fingers.  It’s your very own big lead brick: heavy and poisonous.

But, if we use a little alchemy by following these eight steps, we can turn this brick into gold.

Before Your Crisis

1. Create a team.

Don’t create a mess trying to clean up another.  The “Crisis Communication Team” is the foundation of the structure that you’ll rely upon during a crisis and you should have this team organized and ready for action. Identify the people in your organization who can help you manage the flow of information during a crisis, and ask them to join your Crisis Communication Team.

2. Prepare a communications plan.

Your existing company roles are probably not ideal in the face of a crisis.  A good crisis communications plan will define specific roles to be filled for a crisis event.  I suggest “Team Director” to oversee the operation and “Communications Manager” to manage the flow of information. The plan should include a regularly updated contact list for key business leaders and a checklist of very general action steps that would apply to any crisis.

3. Draft a questionnaire.

You are an alchemist, not a psychic. Don’t spin your wheels trying to prepare for everything. You cannot predict what or when your next crisis will be, and you are not creative enough to imagine all of the possible ways things can go wrong. The main part of your crisis communication plan should actually be a questionnaire.

When your team convenes, it should ask questions such as:

  • “What is the nature of the crisis and where is it being played out?”
  • “Is there an immediate need for a public response?”
  • “What are the sources of content needed to respond to this event?”
  • “Where can we direct the media for the most updated info related to this event?”
  • “What is the priority of each response area?”
  • “Are there any internal weaknesses or conflicts of interest that the team should address?”

Part of the questionnaire should include an area to begin writing out key messaging for each audience and communications channel.

4. Run a simulation.

The goal of the team, the plan and the questionnaire is to provide structure during an unpredictable and stressful time. Wouldn’t you want to know whether it works as intended?  Best to check for holes in your gloves before you start working with lead.

During your crisis

5. Respect the media.

They might be coming after you, but let’s face it, they are the ones with direct access to the people you need to reach.  Anticipate their questions, prepare for interviews, provide credible information, be nice.  Don’t ignore them, don’t say “no comment”, and don’t try to stop them from doing their job.

6. Be as honest and open as possible, as quickly as you possibly can, and in every direction that you can.

You don’t have to “tell everything to everyone”.  You do have to “tell something to everyone”.  That something better be the plain truth, or you will not only be dealing with the original crisis but also a new one you just created.  Protecting corporate liability is one thing, but being deceptive, unresponsive or squirrely in the media will hurt you every single time.

7. Don’t forget about your friends. Ask for their help.

The credibility of your brand may be in question during a crisis and your response alone may not sway the masses.  Reach out to other respected brands and organizations that could advocate for your brand during this time.  Provide them with anything they need to make it easy for them to publicly become a “character witness” for your brand or organization.

After Your Crisis

8. Evaluate yourself and your team.

Did your actions have the intended effect?  Do you need to add items to your plan or questionnaire?  Do you need to create a new role on your team? Make changes and improvements to your team or plan where necessary. Each crisis helps you become even more prepared for your next one.

Lead into Gold?

Unfortunately, Alchemy is junk science and there really is no way to turn a lump of lead into gold. But fortunately, a crisis isn’t a lead brick to begin with.  It’s already gold.  If you follow the steps above, you’ll be able to take what is normally viewed as a radioactive disaster and see it for what it really is: A valuable opportunity to have meaningful communication with your customers and associate your brand with virtues such as respect, humility, and honesty.