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Crisis Communication 101 – Basic Rules of Managing a Crisis

Posted At: October 21, 2009 1:43 PM
by Philip Turkowitsch, Contributing Writer

On Feb. 25, 2009, a Turkish Airlines aircraft crashed upon landing at Amsterdam International Airport. Nine people were killed and another 86 were injured in this tragic accident. I happened to watch a report on CNN that day, when all of a sudden the breaking news came in. The Amsterdam Airport Authority confirmed an incident but was unable to give any further information a few minutes into the rescue operation. CNN had to get the story from different sources and found them on Twitter.

Here is what happened: The accident occurred just a few meters off a main road. Cars stopped and people started taking photos of the crash site on their cell phones. Within seconds, pictures of the wrecked aircraft made their way online and from there to major news networks. The so-called iReporters allowed news channels all over the world to broadcast pictures of a live rescue operation. As expected, CNN dealt with the situation in a very professional way. They stated that these initial reports were eyewitness’ comments and unconfirmed by authorities. No CNN reporter allowed speculation or offered rumors.

Turkish Airlines was under pressure from the start. By the time airline officials were informed about the accident, reports had already made their way online and on TV. During the critical first few hours, Turkish Airlines personnel had to react to reports rather than being able to handle the crisis in a proactive way. They did well during their response for one single reason: They had a crisis plan prepared.

This example shows how quickly an accident can become breaking news. Companies that are unprepared put their organizations’ and their employees’ futures at stake. For all of us working in public relations, the above case study proves one thing: Whether we are prepared or not, we need to respond.

Today, media can broadcast stories from the most remote locations of our planet in a matter of minutes. Contrary to popular belief, news media is not the priority audience in a crisis. They report about the situation and distribute messages to the people they are actually targeting: the crisis stakeholders. Those could be victims of the crisis, families of the victims, dissatisfied customers, potential customers, investors, employees, etc. If I could give one piece of advice on modern crisis management, it would be to put the people first and the rest of the business will follow.

How do you put the people first?

To start, give the public information. In a crisis, PR practitioners need to talk. If they do not talk, someone else will do it for them. Their competitors, dissatisfied customers, industry experts and former employees will all have something to say about the situation. But only the practitioners have the company’s best interest at heart.

Be honest! Crisis management is also about regaining trust. PR practitioners cannot lie their way out of a crisis – it will always backfire. Being dishonest during an emergency response campaign is a sure way to navigate the company into troubled waters. If investors, customers or business partners find out that the company is trying to finagle them, credibility is gone. A crisis is the time to step up and show competency and commitment to honesty. The victims of a crisis deserve to know the truth.

In any crisis situation, you should be prepared to answer the “Big Three” crisis media questions. These questions are asked with surprising consistency in any emergency situation, regardless of the nature of the crisis. Answers to these questions set the tone for general media coverage.

The “Big Three” crisis media questions are as follows:

Q: What happened?

A: Be honest and provide as many facts as possible. Send out updates as further information becomes available. The goal when answering question one is to appear competent and transparent. Show stakeholders that you know what you are talking about, have gathered all relevant information and are forwarding all available facts. Do not hide anything!

Q: Why did it happen?

A: Give the reasons as to why the situation occurred. When responding to an accident, you might not be able to answer this question right away. Investigations often take months and you might find yourself in a position where you will have to deal with rumors and accusations. Do not speculate; it will not help the victims of your crisis.

Q: What are you going to do about it?

A: As you might have guessed, this is your chance to shine. This question gives the company the opportunity to show that it is professional, responsible and prepared. Tell stakeholders what actions will be taken to help them during this difficult situation. Make sure to get the answer to this question right because you might only have one try.

For more on this topic, go to Turkowitsch’s blog post “ — How the Internet Can Help You in a Crisis.”

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