HR & Management

A seven step guide to crisis communications

5 min read

25 August 2015

The number of big brands which make glaring missteps when it comes to PR is huge. Rampant PR consultant Luke Smith outlines what any business needs to remember when talking to press – so any crisis you may have doesn't turn into a catastrophe.

In today’s digital age, there are no hiding places when things go wrong. When a crisis occurs and the public find out – be it through Twitter or a breaking news headline – it won’t be long until someone from your business will have to face the press. The media’s insatiable thirst for a headline, and relentless questioning, can quickly turn a crisis into a catastrophe, if not handled correctly.

Preparation is key before any business representative speaks to the media; get caught like a rabbit in the headlights and you will end up doing far more damage to your business’s brand. For a short time only, all eyes will be on you – how you handle a period of intense media attention can ultimately make or break your business.

Although no one crisis is the same as the next, there are a number of bear traps that business representatives consistently fall into when thrust into the limelight which undermine their gravitas significantly.

(1) There is no such thing as “off the record” 

Anything you discuss with a journalist can end up in the public domain, even if they appear to give the impression that it will not. In the midst of a crisis, many are caught out this way, as journalists try to investigate what really happened. Put simply, if you don’t want it to appear in the press, just don’t say it.

(2) Steer clear of jargon 

It will create a barrier between you and the audience and potentially annoy the journalist you’re speaking to. Worse, it can be interpreted as an attempt to throw people off the scent; not the impression you want to give.

(3) Keep your answers pithy and to the point

Nobody asked for your life story, they want to know the facts, and fast. Avoid going off on tangents, and reinforce your key message at the end of each answer.

That said, it is important not to talk too quickly – look at the interview as a public performance. Take your time when speaking, and ensure your message is made clearly. If the interviewer has to ask you to repeat something because you rushed it through, it can throw you completely off course; if they don’t ask you to repeat something they’ve misunderstood, the result could be worse.

(5) Don’t robotically read off a script

In times of high pressure, you may be worried that you’ll forget to say something when being interviewed by the press. Do not, under any circumstances, read from a script to alleviate that tension. Your listeners will be able to tell; you will sound wooden, rehearsed and lacking in empathy.

(6) Use emphatic language

Passive words make you appear weak and uncertain of your position. Stand strong, and make your position clear. If you disagree with something being levelled at you, tackle it.

There’s a good chance that, when being interviewed by a journalist about an emerging crisis, it won’t be a friendly discussion. If you’re interrupted before you’ve finished an important point, finish it. You don’t need to be aggressive, but you can be firm. It’s crucial that your key points are heard and understood.

(7) Know your boundaries and don’t stray beyond them

If your business has decided not to comment on something, there’s a good reason for that. Do not allow yourself to be led down the garden path.

Whatever you do, don’t do a “Nick Clegg”. Don’t make promises that you cannot keep – it puts you under pressure, and can lead to a great headline, particularly if you don’t deliver on it.

Underestimating the importance of preparation can double the intensity of any crisis. By facing the music in a calm and confident way, you can take back some of the control and limit any damage to your business’s brand. 

Being the subject of increased media scrutiny is a stressful time for anybody, but if you can use this attention to present your business in the best possible light, your business will live to fight another day, and may even be the stronger for it.

Luke Smith is a consultant at crisis comms agency, Rampart PR.