Opinions affect the value of a business—and opinions can change. This is never more pronounced than during a communications crisis, which is any negative occurrence that interrupts operations and is exacerbated by information in the public sphere. A crisis might stem from an accusation or incident; self-inflicted negative attention from a statement or poorly conceived launch; new legislation that has an impact on a particular industry or community—or a world-wide catastrophe such as COVID-19, which is affecting every business.

During a crisis, negative or inaccurate information can circulate broadly and quickly. Without a plan and professional counsel, the narrative can spin out of control. This distracts from normal business operations and can erode trust that’s hard to rebuild. While people understand that negative or unexpected things can happen, they expect that the company in the middle of the crisis should be prepared and handle things with speed and transparency.

Even with today’s events—the spread of and preparation for the novel coronavirus, where companies are not responsible—customers and employees are looking for answers and leadership.

Just the rate and tone of internal, customer, and external inquiries from the media and regulators can be stressful, causing decision-makers at the top anxiety and workers throughout the company a lot of uncertainty. Think about the amount of time you and your team have already spent dealing with COVID-19.

Components of a crisis

If you have yet to experience a communications crisis, it may be challenging to imagine what’s so difficult about navigating one. Here are some of the common ingredients, often amplified by an element of surprise and high emotions:

  • Illness, injury or accusation of negligence
  • Natural or man-made catastrophe affecting public safety
  • Significant loss of jobs or revenue
  • Sudden change of leadership (possibly after conflict)
  • Leader or social media manager expresses something inappropriate
  • Legal scrutiny or threat of lawsuit
  • Consternation, paranoia, partial disclosures and concerns of insincerity

Put even some of these together and your business has a recipe for disaster that could leave a bad taste in the mouths of many. Your customers, employees, partners and other stakeholders come to rely on your operations, services, products, facilities and the information you disseminate. It’s only natural that a sudden disruption could cause concern and an erosion of trust. And time is of the essence to make things right.

However, if you are able to manage your message and adapt to the new reality in near-real-time, you and your people will fare much better.

Don’t go it alone

The most important thing you can remember when a crisis hits: keep calm and call in the professionals.

While a crisis can result in some on-the-job learning and team building for your people, it is no time to go it alone. A crisis handled well can bolster your credibility and brand. But if it doesn’t go well, it can harm your revenue, stunt your growth and damage your image for the long term. A seasoned crisis communications person or team will add to your capacity and knowledge base when the calls, emails and tweets come pouring in.

Once you have a partner identified, signed and up to speed—which should happen within hours rather than days—you will want to loop in executive leadership and legal counsel. From there, your mileage may vary. A crisis might be limited to getting information to a few hundred people or to a million. It might be over and done within a week or it could take several months. It might be solely about correcting misinformation or it could involve changing core aspects of your operations.

Regardless, it is critical to remember that your customers and other stakeholders don’t experience your crisis as you do: from the inside. In a vacuum of information, people are desperate for answers or eager to pile on to internet rumors for entertainment value. Your objectives are to be quick, steady and accurate. If a mistake has been made, apologize with sincerity.

Crises are oftentimes unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept the damage and count your losses. If you do the prep work and have the right team in place, there’s no reason your business, brand and leaders can’t emerge stronger and even more trusted than before.

Many people can lead when the going is easy. It’s another thing when the going gets tough, and there’s nothing like a crisis to show the true strength of a leader.

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