Should You Really Communicate Immediately In A Crisis?
“When a crisis strikes, you need to communicate immediately.”
That piece of crisis communications advice is a perennial favorite from PR professionals, a nugget of irrefutable wisdom that few people dare challenge. I regularly give readers and clients the same advice, and even included that sentence in my article “Seven Rules to Remember When a Crisis Strikes.”
But as I look back at that sentence, it strikes me as incomplete and in desperate need of further explanation.
Here’s the problem with that sentence: It doesn’t define what a “crisis” is. Does that advice mean that you should respond to every allegation some random dude hurls at you on Twitter? Or that you should respond immediately to mini-crises that may never be known to more than 12 people? And how can you tell the difference between a true brewing crisis and a small annoyance that will quickly flame out on its own?
To help answer those questions, I reached out to three respected crisis communicators. They offered smart suggestions to help guide you in the earliest moments of a “crisis.”
Melissa Agnes, a crisis professional who blogs at MelissaAgnes.com, distinguishes between a crisis and “light buzz.” For a crisis in which “the word is out and people are talking, you need to release your statement ASAP,” she writes. But if there’s only “light buzz,” where there’s “a possibility that it might just die down on its own, you have room to monitor and wait to see if a response (and what type of response) is really necessary.” She rightly points out that “responding too quickly might provoke a crisis that otherwise may not have happened.”
Jeff Domansky, known as The PR Coach, agrees, saying that, “Reacting too soon, or over-reacting, can accelerate a crisis unnecessarily….try the RSP approach. Ready. Set. Pause. Get the facts. Prepare key messages. And then use your judgment on when it’s best to speak.” But Domansky also says there’s a major exception to that rule: “If there’s further risk or danger to others, you must respond.”
Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, agrees, writing: “Warning signs of crises do not necessarily require an immediate response, but they should be monitored closely. The perceived credibility of online chatter is as or more important than its frequency. An organization needs to assess on a case by case basis whether the volume, variety and credibility of online chatter has moved a situation to the level of imminent or actual crisis and respond accordingly.”
All three crisis pros are exactly right. Responding “immediately” is almost always the right call for crises in which reporters are already calling you in droves. But for smaller “crises,” sometimes it’s more important to be ready to respond than to actually respond.
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Great article, Brad! Thanks for asking me to be a part of it!
And thank YOU for being a part of it! The three of you dispensed some terrific advice.
Excellent post, Brad (and I really enjoy your stuff!). While crisis management always requires “on the spot” assessment and strategy, some of the heavy lifting can be done in advance by defining markers or thresholds that govern how/if one responds. This can take the form of certain issues that ALWAYS require a response (e.g. the suggestion that a product is unsafe), or volume levels (e.g. a certain number of posts on Facebook). The biggest issues all of us PR pros need to come to terms with is that the speed and ease of digital communications today presents new challenges — a spark can become an inferno, both because of what you don’t do (respond when necesary) or do (over-react, react too quickly). Cheers!
Terrific insights – I love your idea of creating markers or thresholds that govern how/if one responds. You’re exactly right that companies (and others) developing a crisis communications plan should think through those markers in advance.
My only addition to what you said would be to suggest that even with those markers, PR pros should continue exercising judgment “in the moment.” Depending on circumstances of the specific crisis, they might decide to respond earlier or later than the markers would have suggested.
Brad, thanks for sharing an important crisis management perspective. A further thought for those in a crisis. Don’t ever speculate. Being first but wrong can make things much worse. You can still manage the situation by using a holding statement to show concern and indicate you’re actively working on a solution. Managing your initial response and being proactive as soon as you have the facts will usually result in a better outcome. Hopefully your tips will encourage PR pros to handle this delicate balance well under pressure.
Thanks again for your great input. Readers who aren’t familiar with Jeff’s work should check out his website at http://www.ThePRCoach.com.
I guess the takeaway here is to respond to a crisis as soon as or the sooner you’re ready to. Because ultimately, it’s the client’s or PR professional’s judgment call when to do so, isn’t it?
Great post as always Brad. Here’s my ten cents worth!
Far too many people today calibrate to what they think is a crisis, when is negative publicity, and often get into trouble. A true crisis is a defining moment, a single moment in time, when a triggering event (typically stemming from smoldering issues)creates a crisis – a show-stopping, product-stopping, people-stopping event.
If it is a true crisis then responding fast is critical – lives can be saved. Reputations too. The window today is 15 minutes. No longer a golden hour.
All this means that the front-line needs to be educated and empowered. As the US Coast Guard motto says “Maximum Disclosure, Minimum Delay.”
Organizations also need to know what their top three or top five likely trigerign events are. Most likely it will be some smoldering issue just bubbling below the surface. Sometimes it takes just one angry rant from an irate customer or disgrunted employee for the flood gates to open.
[…] Should You Really Communicate Immediately in a Crisis? Post by Mr. Media Training This is an excellent question – one that yours truly was invited to answer! When should you communicate immediately in a crisis, and when should you wait and monitor a bit before releasing your statement? Find out in this post! […]