Crisis Communication: Seven Steps to Success

Safe Food Alliance CA Conference 2017 Recap Series

In 2016 the FDA recalled over 318 million total food items while the USDA (which oversees meat and poultry) recalled almost 60 million pounds of food for a whopping 560 recalls last year! That’s according to Dan Barber, Senior Partner and General Manager, Fleishman Hillard Sacramento. He added that while there are more recalls than ever before, that’s the good news because food recalls have become so common that people no longer become unduly upset– unless there are deaths affiliated with the incident.

If that’s the case, then an unprepared company can be buried by scrutinizing consumers using social media to spread their fears. Even if there are no deaths, social media can turn a bad situation into a nightmare within hours and the company reputation and brand can be scarred if its response is slow and unsympathetic. Think United Airlines with cell phone video cameras rolling and taking images of authorities dragging a passenger down the aisle because he did not want to give up his seat for an overbooked flight! News media proceeded to run the image for days until United Airlines could figure out to apologize, say they would never refuse a seat again and if they did, they would offer $10,000 to the passenger! How do you feel about United Airlines now verses pre-incident?

Indeed, according to Dan Barber, there are steps that can be taken that could save your company and your brand if you are prepared. First, it’s important to define a crisis as any event or issue that threatens the reputation of an organization and its ability to operate effectively. Secondly, while every crisis is unique according to Barber, there are five stages of a PR disaster: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And there are common elements that exist: a triggering event; emotion; initial facts cloudy; events move quickly; outside parties weigh-in; lightning-speed, online communications; and media attention.

Everyone loves victims and villains, especially the media, says Barber, who adds that it’s important to frame the story and define the problem quickly. To do this, Barber recommends that every company have a pre-determined crisis plan: form a small crisis team of decision makers and work with an outside crisis communications expert who has experience with crises; assess the risks that the company is most susceptible to experiencing; create starter messages; and create a starter playbook with the teams contact information; basic roles and responsibilities; list of people to be contacted; list of people who need to hear from you; list of existing communication channels.

There are SEVEN STEPS that Barber recommends in any crisis situation:

STEP ONE: Assemble your crisis team; Choose a central location and gather in person if possible; Gather all schedule and contact information from team to ensure constant lines of communications; based on specifics of issues, do you need to add others to the core group (unique expertise)?

STEP TWO: Gather all the information; don’t let emotion trump strategy; Assemble the facts; Avoid speculation! Facts, figures, causes, effects – who, how, where, when; Determine how you’ll fill in the knowledge gaps and how long it will take; Media will ask what happened? Who is to blame? When did you know? What did you do at the time? What will you do to prevent it from happening again? Assign responsibility for gathering the missing information; imediately confirm and/or enhance monitoring efforts

STEP THREE: Get help; engage an experienced crisis expert; Do this while gathering information but before communicating outside of your crisis team

STEP FOUR: Engage with relevant outsiders; appropriate member of crisis team meets with law enforcement, public safety, other officials who have immediate responsibilities for the situation; Tell what you know. Ask what they know. Don’t speculate. Offer cooperation, but not explanations; Media, politicians, etc. are NOT part of this engagement!

STEP FIVE: Formulate an Action Plan; what is the status of the emerging issue? Possibility to resolve or clearly on the verge of becoming public? What is the appropriate role for the organization? We don’t want to overstep our bounds or unnecessarily “own” an issue; protect the well-earned reputation of our organization.

Can we coordinate communication with other entities on the front line of the issue? Is there a role for a third-party voice? Have we accounted for all our key audiences? Assign specific audience outreach to team; is there a void in communication being filled by uniformed parties?

STEP SIX: Communicate; Deliver your messages – a credible, concise and consistent statement is almost always my first recommendation. If needed, use a single, credible spokesperson. The person should be appropriate to the type and severity of the crisis; they should be media-trained; If possible, activate third-party experts/supporters to help deliver the facts

Tell what you know and what you’ve done; don’t speculate; If you don’t know, that’s the answer. And DO WHAT YOU SAY; Show empathy with those who are affected, but don’t make promises; Say that you will communicate regularly/as soon as there is additional information and do so; Internal communication: stay consistent in messaging; always assume any written transmission can become public

Additional considerations: Password protected daily or weekly call to board members; Crisis specific microsite; Dedicated consumer hotline

STEP SEVEN: Monitor and evaluate; Assign responsibility for monitoring media coverage, social media, and other external communications; Respond immediately to false information or inflammatory discussion – don’t be defensive, just set the record straight. Don’t engage in an online debate or even a cordial “back and forth on the topic; Link people back to your statement; Don’t give up control of your Facebook page but remember that authenticity and transparency is the golden rule with social media; Produce regular reports and circulate to team. Adjust FAQ and messaging as needed.