Speaking Up in Times of Crisis: Questions to Help Your Company Be Heard and Understood

When companies look to announce unexpected or unpleasant news, to take a position on a controversial or complex issue, or to provide an update on a developing crisis, they may reach for the same toolbox they would use for positive, planned corporate announcements, like a new product or a new business strategy. Perhaps a press release, a post on the corporate blog, tweeting out highlights, updating LinkedIn, feeding the Instagram site and posting a YouTube video.  Those can be great tools – for the right sort of situation.  But reliance on these tools can lead companies into falsely thinking that the best way to communicate in a crisis is always to go big, go broad, and go loud, hoping that their messages will be heard over any other voices.

In fact, we find that a much more targeted approach can work best, especially in an age where everyone – not just the company – can grab the social media megaphone.  Here are several questions we suggest leaders and communicators ask themselves to ensure the organization’s communications are meaningful, hold up to scrutiny and maintain the authentic integrity of the company, even in a tumultuous media environment.

  1. What is the business goal? Too often the rationale for company announcements in the midst of a crisis is just “We want to keep people informed.  We have to be transparent.”  Those are lofty goals but without a real business objective. In fact, announcements made in the heat of the moment can seem inauthentic.  Is the announcement real news? Is it a proof point for a previously announced strategy? Does it demonstrate real forward movement on a business plan? If an announcement isn’t serving a clear business goal, perhaps it’s not necessary. Or perhaps the announcement could be delayed until it can more clearly serve a purpose.  There is nothing wrong in coming to the decision that the announcement is unnecessary or premature.  Better to wait than to throw something out that might only become raw meat for traditional and social media.
  2. Who is at the exact center of the issue? Thinking about who is the absolute key audience will help inform the right language, style, and timing for communication.  It’s tempting to list all the possible audiences and think about messages for each.  By instead focusing on the person or group at the center of the issue, a company’s communicators will be better able to hone the message and the exact method of delivery.   Even if the company eventually speaks to multiple audiences, the exercise of focusing attention on this core audience helps streamline and strengthen the entire communications strategy.
  3. What is the call to action? The call to action should always align with the business goal and the central audience.  Are we asking someone to understand something? To call for more information?  To accept an apology?  If someone calls for more information, is there a 24-hour hotline?  Is there a way to receive email inquiries and send them to a central location?   For important issues, we find that sending calls and inquiries to a small, well-prepared group of spokespeople often works much better than arming thousands of call center employees with nothing but talking points that could easily be diluted.
  4. Is this in keeping with the company’s identity? Companies are often called out as having said something that is either not in their voice or does not reflect who they are.  Averting this requires careful discussion and the weighing of every word, at the same time, the corporate voice does not have to be cold, sober, and impersonal.  Just as in good times, what a company says in a time of crisis must reflect its language, personality, aspirations and values.
  5. How will success be determined? Our firm’s late founder Jim Abernathy often referred to the “Abernathy Circle”: the point at which we know the company’s message has gotten through because various audiences – customers, employees, vendors, government officials, community members – are repeating that message to one another.  While we advocate speaking first directly to the most important audience, word can and will filter out from there.  We may even help this process along in ways that are authentic and meaningful: Visiting community leaders, meeting with vendors, holding employee forums, attending industry meetings, etc.  This kind of intense work from the inside of the circle outward can also help a company deeply listen as much as it speaks.
  6. How can social media be made useful? The tools of social media have added both opportunity and peril to strategic communications. There are situations when hundreds of posts mean very little and yet a single post can change everything in an instant. Before the tools of social media can be employed, the company’s approach must be informed by deep and continuous monitoring. Understanding what is being said, and by whom, can help the company apply the same five principles above to any contemplated use of social media.

When communicating in challenging times, it has always been advisable to draw from a wide range of options, from individual responses in one-on-one settings to broad public statements. In today’s tumultuous media landscape, the options may have expanded but the need for a unified, authentic and cohesive strategy remains.

Rhonda Barnat is a Senior Counselor at Abernathy MacGregor. She is a frequent speaker on crisis communications and crisis management throughout the United States and Europe. In addition, Rhonda also works with clients in complex mergers and acquisition situations, including proxy contests.

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