By Lynn Holley
It doesn’t matter if you are a multibillion dollar corporation that delivers millions of goods daily to consumers’ doorsteps or a dog grooming service working out of a leased space in a strip mall, you both have something in common. You can and will face a crisis at some point. The sooner that truth is proactively addressed and you develop a crisis communications plan, the more likely your business will survive and thrive. So, where do you start?
A crisis manager worth his or her salt does the research. There is a lot to sift through, but in my estimation one of the most practical approaches to the topic of crisis communications is offered by Alan Jay Zaremba, author of “Crisis Communication: Theory and Practice” with his “five immutable truths about crisis communication activities.” His approach is philosophical and, more importantly, still relevant in the world as we know it in 2020:
1. Crises are inevitable. Crisis communicators can and must acknowledge the inevitability of a crisis and plan for them before they occur.
Zaremba notes, “it may seem impossible to plan for this kind of inevitability.” He adds, “How can you prepare for something that is likely to have unique characteristics?” In a year with a deadly worldwide pandemic, massive fires destroying millions of acres in the western United States, widespread protests and riots across the country and even an invasion of “Murder Hornets,” you are seldom going to hit crisis predictions directly on the nose. But you’ve got to prepare and you need to be creative because, as Zaremba notes, “planning for a crisis can affect the quality of communication during the crisis.”
He addresses this further in the second point:
2. In case after case, transparent and honest communication has been proven to be key to effective crisis communications.
It always seems easier to go back to your five-year-old self and just lie, but mom always found out the truth. So will the public. As Zaremba puts it, “Evasive responses, disingenuous communications, ambiguous responses, may have short-term effects, but may well have long-term negative effects.” He notes that regardless of the nature of the crisis, “the results repeatedly point to the pragmatic wisdom of transparency.”
3. When in doubt, follow the golden-rule approach.
An oldie but goodie. Zaremba suggests putting yourself into the shoes of your particular audience and consider:
a. What would you want to know?
b. What would you need to know?
c. How would you want the messages communicated to you?
d. What channels would need to be available to you if you had further questions or comments about the crisis?
4. An organization’s culture can determine crisis communications success.
Simply put per Zaremba, “In the throes of a crisis, a plan to be transparent may collide with a tacit or explicit cultural value to ‘win at all costs’ or ‘profit trumps safety’ that had been etched into the consciousness of the organization.” One of the best examples is the frequently cited Tylenol case (1982). Johnson and Johnson’s cultural value was to do the right thing which is what they defaulted to.
5. Crisis communications require training and skill sets that even bright executives might not possess.
Complete honesty and self-reflection are key. Zaremba notes, “A CEO who is trotted out to speak for a company can do damage despite an intelligent plan.”
Find the right people for the job or train them well enough to rise to the occasion.