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The Second and Third Rules of Crisis Communications

Posted in: Best Practices, Industry  |  By:

A guest post by communications expert Bill Wohl

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Trading shutdowns on NASDAQ. Cheating on the track in NASCAR’s premier racing series. Fires breaking out on Boeing 787s. Continued quality concerns for Tylenol. Troubling advertisements for Ford in India.

These are just a few of the dozens of crisis situations in the past year, featuring some of the world’s leading brands. There is no shortage of crisis in today’s business world, and plenty of work for communications professionals, and for crisis communications practitioners.

There can be little debate about the most important rule in crisis communications: Being prepared. Rule #1. In my view, getting through a small or large crisis successfully depends less on what you do in the moment and more about how prepared you were before the crisis surfaced.

Yet, get a few corporate communications and agency professionals together to discuss crisis work and you might find less agreement on Rules 2, 3 and beyond.

Okay – you’ve checked the boxes on Rule 1 – Preparation: You’ve built strong media, analyst, blogger and influencer relationships ahead of time – people who can provide balance and perspective. You’ve aligned internally on crisis process and approaches. You’ve established trusted advisor relationships for communications across your internal network and with top executives. You’ve analyzed crisis risk and planned accordingly. You’ve table-top exercised.

So what is Rule #2 of crisis communications?

I believe the next most important component of a successful crisis communications practice is something I like to call “the sun will come out tomorrow” rule. It’s called having perspective, and it requires that communications professionals become the safe harbor in the stormy seas of a crisis situation.

In a crisis, there is a lot of emotion, intense pressure and an unyielding push at all levels to simply “do something.” Our roles, as crisis practitioners, is to be the smooth, appropriate, and – yes – calming influence in the midst of the storm of crisis. And while it seems almost simplistic to say it, we must be the people who have the confidence and professionalism to smoothly navigate the crisis and help carry everyone through it. And we must do so knowing that – no matter what happens – a new day will dawn tomorrow and life will go on.

My experience in a variety of very large corporate crisis situations bears this out – no matter how bad Day 1 of a crisis is, the reality is that Day 2 comes quickly. Life goes on. Business goes on. And while crisis situations come with a lot of high stakes, get-it-done-now challenges, business does not have a “pause” button that allows us to put the world on hold while we solve our crisis challenges.

History proves that great brands and companies survive even the toughest crisis situations. The strength of brand and reputation carries companies through even the worst of times. Likely, it is because they did an excellent job on Rule #1 (they were prepared). Ford is still selling cars, Boeing just released the next version of the 787… The sun does come up tomorrow, and as crisis experts, our job is to bring that certainty to our approach to crisis, and help our clients get from Day 1, to Day 2, and beyond. For me, that’s why Rule #2 is so important.

So…what’s Rule #3?

The world of communications is often unpredictable. Despite all of our business insight and good planning, the next crisis around the corner may well be unexpected and beyond assumed scenarios. It may well exceed your team’s ability to manage based on factors like size and scope, and topics beyond your areas of competency.

Rule #3 is therefore very straightforward: ask for help, and ask for help early. Today’s crisis situations require unique skills and expertise and even experienced communications teams can become quickly overwhelmed. In the high stakes game of corporate communications, bringing in experts will win you fans and accolades from executive management. There is no shame in calling in experts – this is exactly what the legal department does with outside counsel, and what the CFO’s office does with M & A firms.

Managing a crisis means putting the very best experts on the job – backed up by strong preparation and outstanding professionalism in the face of difficult circumstances. So let the debate rage about the right best practices for crisis communications. That’s my take on Rules 1-3… What do you think?

Bill Wohl is Founder and President of Wohl Communications LLC, a global communications consultancy. He can be reached at wohlwa@gmail.com, on the web at www.wohlcommunications.com and on twitter @billwohl61


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