Strategy needed to prevent crises

10 expert communication tips to identify and prevent potential crises

Organizations should move quickly to prevent potential crises, to close actual crises fast, and to act firmly to create positive opportunities from crisis situations. As the age-old saying goes; “Prevention is better than cure,” and so organizations need to continually review the operational environment and anticipate potential risks. Communicators should play an important, central role in all these situations because their resolution always requires good communication.

10 expert communication tips to identify and prevent potential crises

1. Anticipate and plan

To prevent actual crises, and to prevent potential crises, anticipate every possible crisis scenario and ask “What if …?” for every potential incident and scenario that can be envisaged. When I did this with my corporate affairs team in an electricity utility, we were astonished by the high number of potentially major issues our organization could possibly confronted with. We brainstormed more than 40 potential issues that could potentially turn into crises, and so we had to combine issues into broad categories to make them manageable to consider.

Broad categories of potential issues or crises facing most organizations include:

  1. Reputation crisis – results from any threat or danger that can damage the good stakeholder perceptions of your organization. A reputation crisis can be a major factor in any of the crises listed below.
  2. Financial crisis – typically caused by a major reduction in demand for products or services.
  3. Employee crisis – usually when an employee or individual associated with the company is involved in unethical or illegal misconduct.
  4. Operational crisiswhere an organization  has significantly wronged its customers, employees, or other stakeholders.
  5. Technological crisis – technology crashes can cause major disruptions and loss of reputation, eg telecommunication companies, banks, and other organizations based on online services.
  6. Natural crisis – disasters caused by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, heat, and other extreme weather events.
  7. Confrontation crisis – the parties involved are looking to get their demands met. This may result in a public boycott or mass employee resignations.
  8. Workplace violence crisiswhen a current or former employee commits violence against other employees.
  9. Crisis of malevolence, eg cybersecurity threats, hacking, kidnapping, spreading of false rumors, and product sabotage.

Global risks now confront us

Individual people around the world, and all types of organizations are now confronted more by global risks than ever before. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024 says the biggest short-term risk stems from misinformation and disinformation. In the longer term, climate-related threats dominate the top 10 risks global populations will face:

The cascading shocks that have beset the world in recent years are proving intractable. War and conflict, polarized politics, a continuing cost-of-living crisis and the ever-increasing impacts of a changing climate are destabilizing the global order.

Vital findings are discussed in the World Economic Forum global risks perception survey 2023-24 in the above WEF report. A difficult decade ahead predicted for all countries, unfortunately. The findings, as summarized in the image below from page 8 of the report, include:

…the collective intelligence of nearly 1,500 global leaders across academia, business, government, the international community and civil society. It also leverages insights from over 200 thematic experts, including the risk specialists who form the Global Risks Report Advisory Board, Global Future Council on Complex Risks, and the Chief Risk Officers Community.

Prevent crises. WEF Global risks survey 2023-24

You should allocate team members to roles in a crisis communication team. Then you need to develop a detailed communication plan for helping to directly prevent a potential crisis, solve a particular crisis, and seek potential positive opportunities from the process of resolving those matters. My article, “Improve risk management in your communication activities,” will be helpful in preparing your communication plan.

2. Respond immediately to prevent potential crises from escalating

When you encounter a potential crisis, or when an actual crisis strikes, respond immediately. Have the spokesperson briefed and ready to start communicating. Follow the steps outlined in the crisis communication plan and put the team into action. The first few hours are most important in establishing credibility and building public trust and credibility. Don’t stonewall. Be responsive to the media and inform the people who need to be kept informed, especially employees, customers, and government regulators.

If you are in a public company, ie listed on the stock exchange, you need to carefully assess all public statements, and ensure the stock exchange is included as a priority as a key stakeholder to receive all public information. Where feasible you should also directly inform your shareholders about the situation.

Eliminate “No comment” from your vocabulary. One way or the other, the news media and social media will get information, but it may be inaccurate and the sources unreliable. In a crisis, perception is stronger than reality, and emotion stronger than fact. When those responsible don’t communicate, the crisis still gets played out on the internet, in the media, by word of mouth, and possibly even later in court.

In many cases a draft news release can already be prepared for media distribution ahead of actual crises occurring. For example, if a crisis team believes the company may be a target for a labor strike, a news release can be prepared, approved by all concerned and put on the shelf for future use, especially if your CEO may possibly be unreachable at times to make a quick statement. Having a pre-approved news release would allow the organization to quickly respond until the top executive could be reached.

Prepare an immediately-ready, private page on your website containing a draft general public statement, along with background information on your organization and your CEO, along with relevant product or service information as well as suitable photographs and video material. Include your communication function’s crisis communication contacts for news media information. Allocate a comms staff member to keep the page constantly updated.

If litigation is possible, either as a plaintiff or defendant, prepare detailed fact sheets and background materials ready to release to the media when needed.

3. Don’t overtalk

Don’t overtalk or release information without having all the facts. Never speculate on what may or may not be happening. Be sure to analyze each situation for its newsworthiness. Some information may not justify media attention. Former White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said: “You don’t have to explain what you don’t say.”

You don’t have to answer every question. Just because a question is asked doesn’t mean you have to answer, but you should give some kind of response. In any crisis, there are questions that you simply cannot or should not answer. Hypothetical questions, proprietary questions and speculative questions should be politely turned away. For example: “Sorry, we are still investigating the causes of this matter, and therefore don’t know the full picture at this stage to enable comment on that aspect.” The spokesperson needs to be trained and reminded that they can’t be expected to know the answer to every question asked. But never withhold information that should be disclosed.

 4. Always tell the truth

Never lie or deceive the media or public with misinformation. It is all right to say “I don’t know” if you don’t have the facts. The media and public will respect you for that, and know that you are telling the truth. Never speculate. Former US General and Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said it is best to get facts out as soon as possible, even when new facts contradict the old. He wrote in his book, My American Journey, that “Untidy truth is better than smooth lies that unravel in the end anyway,”

According to industry surveys, around 95% of people are more offended by an organization lying about the crisis than by the crisis itself. Even worse, more than half believe that organizations either withhold negative information or lie. These perceptions affect the reputation of the organization, and at the extreme, could affect its future viability.

5. Accept responsibility

Be accountable and accept responsibility if your organization is at fault.  Nearly everyone disclaims responsibility when things go wrong, but people don’t respect you if you are perceived as dodging accountability.

Today’s leaders in government, business and also the news and social media have fueled a rising tide of public distrust and skepticism. The sooner a company accepts responsibility for its actions, the stronger is its credibility in the public arena. In any crisis situation, the faster an organization says it is responsible and accountable, the faster it will be able to manage communications and have its message believed.

An organization’s liability for issues, eg a telco’s loss of customer connections, may need to be resolved with the attorneys involved, but winning in the court of public opinion, in the long run, is far more important that winning a decision in court. Never go into a denial mode. The media and the public will believe a spokesperson whose accepts responsibility, and this is one way to build public trust.

6. Select the right spokesperson

Decide in advance who will speak for the organization as part of the crisis communication strategy.  One individual should be the primary spokesperson, usually the CEO, and another as backup. Also, you should appoint spokespersons as technical experts or advisors, such as a financial expert, an engineer, technical expert or the head of the operational area most relevant to the crisis.

Always remember that the media will seek out anyone for a soundbite, so the crisis plan must specify a spokesperson policy, and everyone made aware of the official voices of the organization.

Your spokesperson must be believable. This doesn’t mean being slick or polished. They must be someone the public will trust to tell the truth. All spokespersons must be professionally trained and completely prepared for interview. You should conduct realistic rehearsals with them, so they can respond well to likely interview questions.

 

7. Stop rumors and take steps to rectify misinformation

Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information, usually accidentally misleading, but can also be deliberate. Misinformation can exist without specific malicious intent; disinformation is deliberately deceptive and spread. Misinformation can include inaccurate, incomplete, misleading, or false information as well as selective or half-truths, according to Wikipedia.

When something incorrect is printed, posted or quoted, you should immediately decide how important the problem is, and if you decide to act you can start by pointing out the error and asking for a correction. Otherwise, the media involved will only assume that what went public was correct. For instance, one news media outlet or social media source could print a damaging story containing the incorrect information. A further public information source could assume the information was correct and will therefore use it as well. When repeated over and over, fiction and errors become fact. Same with social media.

When important information about a crisis is incorrect or criticized, you can ask for a correction, a retraction or an apology. A public correction tells everyone that a mistake was made and provides the correct facts. A retraction advises the public that specific statements are withdrawn, usually accompanied by an apology or at least a statement of regret. You are helped these days with this because news media are advised to “address misinformation head-on.” They are advised:

When misinformation arises in our communities, especially in conversation spaces your newsroom owns or helps to moderate, it often does more harm to not acknowledge it. Instead, address it and set the record straight…Publicly own up to mistakes.”

However, “[Pew Research Center research] shows that as much as journalists think publishing misinformation is a problem, they rarely address it in their reporting.”

Options for responding to misinformation

If the source of the misinformation or disinformation won’t retract it, you may have to weigh up some difficult options in response:

  1. You can ignore the incorrect content, and trust the topic will fade away in your stakeholders’ minds fairly quickly because they may not think it is important enough to make a big issue of it in the context of a crisis.
  2. You can publicly ignore the incorrect material, and without actually referring to it, you can provide facts in your messaging that neutralize the false content. You can also engage in other communication activities, such as events or fundraising campaigns for victims or people adversely affected by the crisis that you can use to indirectly refute the incorrect information.
  3. You can  publicly refer to and correct the wrong information. However, this can draw everyone’s attention to the matter, and they may interpret this as your organization not being completely clean by having to rebut the claims publicly. This is because sometimes the public may think an item of false information could contain an element of truth.
  4. You can take legal action to try to force the source of the incorrect content to correct their statement. However, this may motivate them to draw even greater attention to the crisis affecting your organization. This can backfire because your stakeholders may think you are over-reacting, and there may be an element of truth in the incorrect content or emphasis, as in item 3 above. Taking legal action can be costly, especially if the offender has enough funding to drag out the case for a long time, as Donald Trump has done so often.

Misinformation or rumors can spread around the world in a matter of seconds. Therefore, it is so important to have open lines of communication with all employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and other key contacts so you can communicate directly with them. You want to control your message as best you can, but you can’t control what external parties say. The media will seek out anyone with any connection to your organization for information and a quote. Be sure that all authorized spokespersons have correct and current information.

Sophisticated monitoring services are available to live-check news media coverage as well as social media. Disgruntled employees and former employees, as well as whistleblowers can leak confidential information, misinformation or outright lies that are republished on social media, chat groups, websites, message boards or blogs, and eventually find their way into mainstream media.

Sometimes the information you release is factually wrong, and so you must quickly correct it to prevent a potential crisis from occurring – or prevent an actual crisis from continuing.

8. Show compassion and remorse

It is not against the law to show compassion, sympathy, support and remorse for victims and their families and friends. This often is when the public relations counsel and lawyers disagree. The public relations professional wants to win in the court of public opinion, and the lawyers are concerned about potential liability and losing in a court of law.

Expressing sorrow or concern publicly in the wake of a tragic event is understandable. It is also vital. Empathy or caring is a key component of credibility. And establishing credibility must be the overriding goal of any communication. If your audience doesn’t see your organization as a credible source, you won’t succeed with your messaging. Empathy and caring accounts for half of a person’s credibility and is assessed in the first 30 seconds. You have to convince the listener that you are believable, trustworthy, and even likeable. This is crucial for your reputation.

9. Build your reputation beforehand to minimize crises and to prevent potential crises

It is vital for management and communication teams to understand that the strongest influence on corporate reputation is actual corporate behavior, according to Tina McCorkindale, President and CEO of the Institute of Public Relations, who was speaking about the results of a worldwide survey of 511 public companies conducted by MAHA Global in 2024.

Corporate reputation was found to be influenced by how companies are behaving rather than factors such as past behavior of the organization, message efficacy, brand equity, media coverage, etc. These factors, though, are important when building and maintaining corporate reputation, but must be tied to current behavior.

 

 

McCorkindale noted that:

Identifying the gaps between behavior and perception is important for communication functions to better understand how actions impact stakeholder perception, reputational risk, and financial performance…This offers an opportunity for communication teams to be more strategic in how they communicate with their internal and external stakeholders.

There is no point in communication teams trying build an organization’s reputation from communication alone. It is essential for them to ensure organizational reputations are based on good corporate conduct. Here’s a real-life example from my own experience:

When I was corporate affairs manager of a power utility, a senior manager proposed that a KPI for my team should be based on the utility’s reputation score each year. However, I didn’t agree to this because my unit was only accountable for communication, and I had no control over the behavior of call center staff or employees involved with power line installation, maintenance, repair and removal. How could my area be responsible for the actions of linesmen who may have been rude to customers in the field, or who may have taken long lunch times and coffee breaks while waiting for equipment to arrive, etc, or for other poor behavior apparent to all kinds of customers? Employee behavior towards customers is always a key element of corporate reputation, and therefore the corporate affairs unit couldn’t take full accountability for maintaining a good corporate reputation.

When you establish that your organization’s reputation is in good shape from its operational activities, you can safely move forward with strategic communication activities.

Edelman Trust Barometer 2024

The Edelman Trust Barometer 2024 image, above, shows that, worldwide, employees trust their own employers the most. They also trust the business sector the most, out of the four major institutions of business, government, not-for-profit organizations, and media. This is a great point to raise with media when relevant during a crisis if your internal surveys reflect this high amount of trust. You may be able to identify employees who enthusiastically support your organization and would offer good public support during difficult times.

10. Listen actively so you can prevent potential crises and solve actual crises

During a crisis, it is important to listen to what employees, the public and adversaries are saying, and to be sure that they, and the media, understand what you are saying. Listening is essential to communicating, negotiating, resolving conflicts and even avoiding crises. Many people don’t listen in order to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. You have to be an active listener to properly understand others. Active listening is hard work for some people, but it can be learned.

People who seem like they’re paying attention often aren’t — even when they’re smiling and nodding toward the speaker. Research in 2023 revealed just how prone the mind is to wandering, and it sheds light on ways to stay tuned in to the conversation. Worth reading. Same with a Harvard Business Review article by Charles Duhigg in 2024: “How to become a supercommunicator at work.”

As an active listener, you focus on the speaker and your adversaries, take notes, ask questions based on what they are saying, and make eye contact so they know you are listening, because communication must be two-way. Discuss your point of view clearly, accurately  and honestly.

Internal organizational listening

In a helpful article in 2024, the UK’s Kevin Ruck says the leaders of many organizations aren’t in touch with their employee attitudes and concerns, and even their awareness of ways to prevent potential crises. This lack of listening can lead to internal crises. Therefore, you need to develop a healthy listening climate, in which senior leaders, with the guidance of the communication team, take responsibility for developing multiple methods in a systemic approach to listening, and responding to what employees say.

This article is based on an excerpt from a book on crisis communication by Rene Henry, who has kindly consented for his content to be used.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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