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5 Steps to Building a Proactive Crisis Communications Strategy

May 10, 2022

In a perfect world, there would be no need for PR professionals to create a crisis communications strategy. They wouldn’t have that pervasive sense of dread that a brand perception misstep loomed around the corner. They also wouldn’t need to worry about whether they could respond quickly and efficiently enough should a communications crisis occur. The reality of today’s fast-moving and multi-faceted digital world, however, is that a PR crisis is unavoidable. Even the most well-prepared PR teams can be caught flat-footed.

That means your PR team should have a plan in place to swiftly navigate and respond to a variety of communications crises to minimize fallout. So that you’re not left picking up the shattered pieces of your organization’s brand reputation in the aftermath.

This blog post is the third entry in our five-part series on how PR teams can create an effective crisis communications strategy for today’s uncertain world. Our second entry explored ways to plan for the creation of that strategy before you even put pen to paper. To summarize its key takeaway, taking time to plan out your PR crisis strategy helps you to avoid an overly prescriptive and hyper focused plan that accounts for specific crises, yet is so rigid that it leaves you unable to respond to others you didn’t anticipate.

Here, we look at five steps to follow when building your crisis communications strategy. Following these steps can help you create a plan that makes room for agile responsiveness when an inevitable PR crisis strikes – and enables you to take proactive action to minimize direct reputational damage. Or even prevent it entirely in the first place.

Step 1: Identify the risks

The first step to building a crisis communications strategy is understanding what types of challenges may lie ahead. While the specific kinds of crises will vary by organization and industry, there are several factors underpinning these crises that are largely universal. We covered the five most increasingly common ones in our first blog post entry in this series. As a quick recap, here they are again:

The five most increasingly common factors in crisis communications today

  • Real-time communications
  • Fake content
  • Workplace violence
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Cybersecurity incidents

 

Within each of these factors and scenarios hides a huge swath of potential PR communications crises: data breaches, natural disasters, lawsuits, layoffs, recalls, etc. By identifying as many risks as possible within each of these and planning your PR responses accordingly, you’ll be better prepared to act should one occur.

Once you consider as many of the scenarios that can negatively affect your organization as possible, you can streamline your plan and make it that much more effective for strategizing and communicating during an incident.

Step 2: Prepare to take responsive measures ahead of time

This is where the proactive element of your crisis communications strategy comes into play. Now that you know what the most likely PR crisis scenarios to impact your organization are, you’re better prepared to plan for and take preemptive measures should you see one of these scenarios on the horizon.

For example, if a cybersecurity incident occurs and your organization will have to disclose a data breach to the public within so many days, you could have already set up a dedicated PR team ahead of time to enact your response plan. This team can quickly find out the extend of the breach to learn what kinds of sensitive information (if any) were stolen and craft messaging that’s truthful but less harmful than a standard data breach disclosure press release that’s vague on details.

Consider setting up a dedicated response team for each crisis scenario. Offer training so that everyone knows what their role is in the event of that their assigned crises occur. You can even conduct practice runs to see firsthand if the crisis communication plan in place works the way it’s intended to. Remember, the goal is to minimize impact, so anything you can prepare beforehand will be beneficial.

Step 3: Acknowledge and engage with your audience

Knowing your core audience and catering to them is essential. In the event of a crisis, you’ll want to acknowledge your audience and tailor your messaging and responses directly to them, especially if they’re directly affected by an event. Have a way to push real-time updates to them so they can follow along with the process. And, if possible, find ways for your audience to respond to your organization in a meaningful and productive way to establish dialogue.

In most cases, utilizing social media is the most efficient way to get your information to the masses. Your audience will be looking to you for guidance and will expect quick and transparent updates. Still, traditional methods such as PR releases, broadcast interviews, and even newspaper ads can help as well, given the event and its severity.

As you prepare for responsive measures to take if one of your likely scenarios occur, brainstorm with your PR team the best ways to respond and possibly even get ahead of each one. For example, continuing with our data breach scenario, while you must disclose to the public that the breach occurred, you can also preemptively set up a special hotline or social media presence where customers affected by the breach can direct their questions. Then you can advertise your efforts in newspapers, radio ads and online. This awareness campaign can be prepped and ready to launch simultaneously with your public disclosure.

Step 4: Take responsibility and hold yourself accountable

Know that nothing can go perfect all the time. Understand that mistakes will be made and when they are, it’s important to hold yourself accountable. Do not try to speculate or pass the blame elsewhere. Take responsibility if necessary and help your organization hold itself accountable. In other words, do not, by any means, create a crisis communications strategy that attempts to shift blame or minimize your organization’s role in a misstep.

When the public becomes aware of an event such as a data breach or revelation of workplace violence, your strategy should be geared for humility and empathy. Be honest and straightforward and offer reassurance. Share insight regarding the event and how your organization is taking this opportunity to reflect and grow. Also, share how your organization plans to handle the crisis at hand, as well as how it will work to prevent something like the event from happening in the future.

Step 5: Establish consistency

Consistency is key. Employees and consumers alike need to know they can depend on and trust your organization in the wake of an event. Reassurance matters more than ever after a disastrous cyber breach or a marketing mishap. Think carefully about any PR messaging before you release it to the public. Is it a statement you can stand by? Are you making promises you can keep? Any PR missteps you make in response to a communications crisis only adds fuel to the flame.

This isn’t to say that you can’t change up PR tactics or approaches midstream; rather, just make sure that anything you say today won’t be contradicted by something you say tomorrow. You can adjust along the way, but just make sure everything you say and do is grounded in honesty. Remember: Audiences know messaging spin when they see it.

Use these 5 steps to build a proactive crisis communications strategy

Following these 5, high-level steps can help you build a PR crisis communications strategy for decisive and effective crisis response. Of course, knowing how to build a crisis communications strategy is only a piece of the puzzle. PR teams also need a way to act on the strategy, as well as to adjust and evolve their strategy as new risks emerge and hidden ones make themselves known. Our next blog post in the series looks at the crisis communications to-dos you should tackle to ensure you’re creating an effective crisis communications strategy.