How to do Crisis Communications after the Pandemic
Disasters, catastrophes and calamities… Oh my!
Okay, now that we’ve all lived through a pandemic, it’s hard to call a PR crisis a calamity, but still... This Monday, we hosted our biweekly Twitter #PRchat that covered all things crisis communications.
Thanks to our special guests (and comms experts), Rod Cartwright and Kate Hartley and a lively e-audience, we were able to ask some of the hardest questions about crisis comms and enjoy live responses from two of the best in the game.
Rod Cartwright lives and breathes crisis management. He is the founder of Rod Cartwright Consulting, and serves as a board advisor and independent counsellor on reputation, crisis, preparedness and resilience (FRSA, FPRCA).
Kate Hartley has also seen her fair share of crises, as she specializes in both preparation for, and avoidance of such unfortunate events. Hartley is the co-founder of Polpeo crisis simulation company and MD of Carrot Communications, a PR and social comms agency.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff!
We put together a series of questions for Hartley and Cartwright to answer, which included hot comms topics like defining crisis communications, its evolving landscape, and crisis preparation and reaction strategies.
Here are some of the highlights from what they had to say...
What is crisis communications and why does it matter?
Crisis communications is a subset of PR that means constant reputational management. Key word, constant.
“It can be hard to invest in #CrisisComms during 'peacetime' - but it's essential,” said Hartley. “The pandemic has shown that.”
Furthermore, our guests heavily emphasized how crucial it is for crisis comms to have a genuine, transparent nature.
“I define it as a human development, with human consequences requiring a human response based on human empathy,” said Cartwright.
Hartley adds, “Crisis comms is, first and foremost, communicating the information people need to help them through a crisis. How open and honest you are will impact your reputation and how much people trust you.”
While it is impossible to prepare for anything and everything, figuring out what crises your organisation may face and having a running action plan to deal with them is a must.
How has crisis comms changed in the past year, since the COVID-19 pandemic?
“People are less tolerant of bad behaviour from organisations,” said Hartley. “The pandemic has made us all realise our role in a global community – we have to care about each other, our survival depends on it.”
Propel’s social media consultant, Tom Basgil, expresses solidarity with Hartley’s response. “[It has] become increasingly clear that organizations can't gloss over crisis comms,” he said. "The brands that had a plan in place were the ones who best survived the many real-world crises that have happened over the past year and a half.”
Check out the input from a seasoned PR pro, Claire Simpson, about what crisis comms during the past year has taught practitioners:
How do social media users typically react to organisation crises? How do they complicate a brand's response?
Social media is a wonderful place for self-expression, but this is not without mountains of implications, both positive and negative.
“There is so much outrage on social media, which leads to polarisation,” said Hartley. “People can get very personal, very quickly, and we need to look after the people dealing with social media and comms in a crisis.”
Darryl Sparey, MD of performance-driven and comms consultancy Hard Numbers, shared a great resource, “Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do,” recommended by professional advisor Stephen Waddington, which serves as a reminder that comms managers have feelings too!
Hartley added valuable insights on the topic from data generated through her crisis simulation platform...
“We see a really interesting pattern when we run crisis simulations,” she said. “After about three hours of pressure, people lose empathy, go into denial, [and] can't cope as well. It's a good lesson in why we need to care about them.”
A few other emerging social themes to be aware of include misinformation/disinformation and increased polarisation over social issues.
“The 'say-do gap' is one of the most damaging factors in terms of reputation and brand equity,” Cartwright said, “though one that organisations still too often fall foul of.”
Read Hartley’s insights on polarisation below:
What steps should PR pros take to prepare for a crisis?
Rod Cartwright works with his clients and their crisis prep using a “preparedness cycle” of five elements: diagnose, rank, review, train and test. While the order may vary, this cycle develops a strong mindset and action plan in dealing with crises, he said.
“Have a plan and rehearse it!” added Hartley. “You’ll never foresee every crisis that comes at you (Wayfair is a good example) but you can train your teams to deal with most things if they know the principles of what you want to achieve.”
Once a crisis occurs, what's the first thing PR pros should do?
Trust the process… but be proactive! Do your best to get to the root of the crisis at hand, and start rolling out your action steps as quickly as possible.
“Follow the processes, activate the systems and use the materials so carefully prepared in the preparedness phase,” said Cartwright.
Claire Simpson added, “STOP all scheduled social media posts.” This can avoid having social posts published that can become seriously inappropriate, insensitive and even offensive in the face of a crisis.
Most importantly, be sure to remain empathetic to your stakeholder groups…
“Put yourself in the shoes of the people affected by the crisis,” said Hartley. “What do they need from you? Most [organisations] think ‘what do I need to say.’ Change that to ‘what do people need from me’ - this takes [a] major mindset shift.”
What are the key principles which guide your approach to crisis comms?
Cartwright summarises a few of his top guiding principles in the tweet below:
“Truth. Values. Empathy. Act first, communicate second,” said Hartley.
If you weren’t able to tune in for this week’s #PRchat, don’t fret. We host them biweekly, so mark your calendar for June 21 at 6 p.m. BST to chat with us and special guest Michelle Garrett about tips, tricks and insights on succeeding as a freelance consultant!