The cost of poor crisis communication can be steep. Samsung's mobile profits were almost totally wiped out after the company failed to take full responsibility for dangerous flaws in the company's phones. More recently, Boeing stocks cratered in the months after it suggested two high-profile jet crashes were due to pilot error, rather than technical issues.
Here are the seven steps you should take in a crisis to maintain strong customer relationships and good public opinion.
1. Know your audience
Know exactly who you need to keep informed during a crisis.
There will be a few different groups you'll need to communicate with — employees, customers, vendors and community leaders, among others. You may also be obligated to get in touch with government officials and regulators, depending on the type of crisis.
You should have a list to hand of different groups your company should contact to ensure you target everyone with your response. Keep contact information easily available so you can send out targeted communications, like email blasts and press releases, as soon as they're ready.
2. Act fast
If you don't break the story first, someone else will.
You want to keep your communications accurate and responsible — but you also need to move quickly. Crisis communication is almost always going to overlap with investigation and crisis response. If customers are at risk — for example, if hackers have stolen their passwords — responsible communication will have to start before you have all the answers.
Often, it will be better to respond quickly and admit you don't know everything rather than wait for the best possible outcome. It's hard to win back credibility if your business fails to communicate. It may seem like you're not aware of the crisis or are ignoring concerns. A non-response or simple "no comment" can do serious damage that may be hard to repair, even with strong follow-up communication.
3. Communicate with responsible honesty
In a crisis, honesty really is the best policy. Coverups, deceit or minimization will weaken your response and make it harder for your customers to trust you when the full truth comes out.
There are some things you'll have to hold back from your audience. The technical specifics of a data breach, for example, may need to be kept secret temporarily to prevent further hacks. Your crisis response plan may also be developing, and while you're exploring response options, you haven't settled on a final approach. In cases like these, stay responsibly honest and transparent, but don't release information that could cause further harm or confusion.
This rule is true even if the issue isn't necessarily a brand crisis. In April, for example, Ticketmaster came under fire after quietly altering its policies during COVID-19 to disallow refunds in case of event postponement. The company tried to sneak through a policy change and was found out — damaging trust at one of the worst possible moments.
4. Make information easy to access
Email is good for agile and targeted crisis communications, but you may not have contact info for your entire audience. You want to offer information about how your company is responding to anyone who wants to see it — especially if you're making changes that are immediately relevant to customers, like altered store hours or closures.
Social media is a powerful tool at any time — but this is even more true during a crisis. These platforms allow for speedy and accessible responses. With one post, you can communicate the gist of the situation and also provide access to more in-depth communication like a press release or blog post.
5. Prioritize injured parties
Who is harmed by this crisis? Lead by acknowledging them and detailing how your business is working to help them. You may need to apologize. If so, keep it genuine and make sure you know the common pitfalls of corporate apologies.
An effective apology can be hard to pull off. Your organization has a much better chance if it's willing to acknowledge the harm done and stay transparent and honest. Effective leadership requires strong interpersonal abilities, and that includes being genuine when saying sorry.
6. Follow through and follow up
Communicate regularly as the crisis develops. If the issue is ongoing, make sure customers or anyone interested knows how your business is responding.
You don't need to relay every aspect of your response strategy, but it is good to regularly check in with your audiences.
7. Keep it consistent
Your organization’s tone and message should be consistent across all channels. Consistency in communication can help reassure customers that your response is being coordinated across the company. It will also help avoid any confusion over how your operation is responding.
As more information becomes available and your crisis response develops, remember to update your communications everywhere you have them posted. Provide links to newer responses at the top of older articles and respond to old posts with updated information.
Effective crisis communication strategies
As your company handles a crisis, sticking to these steps can help you manage your response. Being honest and open will ensure customers continue to trust your brand and have faith in your ability to handle serious challenges.
Once the crisis is over, you should also take the opportunity to regroup and review your communications. Information from past challenges can be extremely helpful in building your plans. With a little analysis, you can be even better prepared for any future crisis.