What is the Best Approach to Crisis Communications?

When a crisis strikes what can you, as a communicator, do?

Your first inclination may be to ignore the issue and hope it dissolves, or at least wait it out to see what happens. Given how quickly fires spread on social media, you may find yourself behind the problem before you even knew there was one, making the “wait it out” option impossible. 

On January 26, Environics Communications, Inc. hosted a panel discussion on crisis communications successes and failures. The event featured professionals from American Red Cross, Goodwill Industries, Keolis Commuter Services, and Texas A&M University, who shared case studies and tips from their experiences in crisis management.  

What we found is that what may initially appear as a minor issue can quickly escalate into a public affairs crisis that PR professionals, communications directors, and social media managers HAVE to be prepared for. Here are some key takeaways from each panelist:

Dr. Timothy Coombs, PHD and Professor of Crisis Communications at Texas A &M University

Crisis communications today isn’t the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago. With the constant stream of content coming through social media channels, there are also certain risks and rewards associated with those channels.  

Professor Timothy Coombs reminds communicators that social media is beneficial in catching crises before they escalate. “The first priority in a crisis is to identify company stakeholders that could potentially support the organization and redirect its messaging,” he says. "In order to handle a crisis, communicators need to establish themselves as the trusted source of information.

Professor Timothy Coombs presents on the "rewards" of social media. Photo by Daniel Schwartz Photography

Professor Timothy Coombs presents on the "rewards" of social media. Photo by Daniel Schwartz Photography

Pictured are Jeanne Hamrick and Mimi Carter before the panel. Photo by Daniel Schwartz Photography

Pictured are Jeanne Hamrick and Mimi Carter before the panel. Photo by Daniel Schwartz Photography

Jeanne G. Hamrick, APR, Senior Manager, Media Relations at the American Red Cross

Jeanne Hamrick of the American Red Cross reflected on a crisis that struck the nonprofit in June 2016 when a 10-year-old poster on pool safety was called out on Twitter for its racial caricatures. As soon as the issue started to gain media attention, the priority was to redirect the conversation back to pool safety. In a crisis, Jeanne outlines 6 steps to resolve the issue:

  1. Research
  2. Remove
  3. Remorse
  4. Response
  5. Repair
  6. Rebuild

According to Jeanne, following these steps did more than just help the American Red Cross through the crisis. The organization saw improved internal processes and the relationships the Red Cross had with pool safety organizations also benefitted.

Leslie Aun, Vice President of Communications for Keolis North America

Crisis communications requires that messaging be crafted to improve the perception of a company, but there also needs to be management of senior and executive leadership.

Recalling her former work with the Susan G. Komen organization, Leslie Aun of Keolis Commuter Services cited the company's 2007 PR crisis, when it received backlash for defunding Planned Parenthood. Leslie expressed that the toughest part of crisis communications is managing leadership, and getting the executives on board with appropriate messaging and redress. Many leaders have a difficult time admitting culpability in a situation, and according to Leslie, this is a problem. Admitting fault, and being sincerely apologetic for it, is crucial to remedying a crisis.

Lauren Lawson-Zilai, Senior Director of Public Relations and National Spokesperson for Goodwill Industries International

Attendees listen to Leslie describe two cases of crisis where communications worked, and where they did not. Photo by Daniel Schwartz Photography

Attendees listen to Leslie describe two cases of crisis where communications worked, and where they did not. Photo by Daniel Schwartz Photography

In 2015, a Goodwill employee tweeted about a breastfeeding mother at the store where she was working. In response to that tweet, another Goodwill employee chastised the mother in question, this time using the company’s account. Needless to say, all of this was done without approval from the Goodwill communications team leadership.

To resolve the situation, Goodwill Industries suspended the employees responsible for the tweets, publicly apologized, and labeled all their stores with the international symbol for breastfeeding to convey their support. When a protest was planned against the store, Goodwill went a step further and served the protesters snacks. 

Mimi Carter poses questions to the panelists. Photo by Daniel Schwartz Photography

Mimi Carter poses questions to the panelists. Photo by Daniel Schwartz Photography

So, what’s the consensus on crisis communications?

All of our experts agree, assessing the situation followed by a strategic game plan are among some of the first steps to any crisis communication process. Though there are situations where a response is not necessary, when one is warranted it is critical to use messaging that matches the perception of your company with the reality of it in order to protect your business’ reputation.

Want to implement your own crisis communications plan? Download our guide, Crisis Management in a Social Media World for a more in-depth look at preparing for and managing a crisis.

Laura KlebanowComment