When crisis strikes, clear communication becomes more important than ever. Here are 4 essential questions to ask before communicating in a crisis:
What is true?
Before you say anything at all, use the time you have to gather facts. Prepare ahead of time for this by loading your smart phone and computer with the contact information you’ll need in time of crisis. Get to the bottom of a situation as methodically and quickly as you can. If a situation is unfolding slowly, be sure to communicate only what you know for sure. In crisis, conjecture and speculation can magnify the difficulty. Speak truth, and only truth.
What needs to be said?
Once you have gathered all of the available information, be sure to filter out what doesn’t need to be said. Separate factual information from personal details. Be sure you are familiar with any legal restraints that restrict what you may or may not say. Crisis is not the time to be researching what is allowable by law. Things like FERPA and HIPA and other law exist to protect the rights of students and patients and they strictly limit what information can be shared. Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean it needs to or can be communicated publicly.
Who needs to hear it?
Once you know the facts, and have filtered out any information that you cannot share, and any information that is unnecessary to share, figure out who your audience is. In a crisis, immediately notify family members and any one directly affected. After that, stakeholders. Finally the public at large, if necessary. This order will become increasingly important as the crisis unfolds. People who need to know, well, they need to know. Others can wait, but prepare yourself for the fact that they won’t want to wait.
How will you say it?
Sometimes, mistaken as “spin,” there is an art to delivering information during a crisis. People need facts and reassurance, not speculation and panic. Deliver the information with true confidence and emotion. Be as real as possible with people. Phrases like, “We will continue to share the most up to date and accurate information we can.” And then do it. You are building trust as you go, even in the midst of a crisis. When the credit card data base of a large department story was compromised recently, they sent form letters. When one of the major credit card companies found out some of their cards were compromised, they called individual card holders directly. Which company do you think build more trust and lost fewer customers?
When I was the communications officer for a large public school district, I faced many crisis situations that required excellent communication. Often we were restricted in what we could say by FERPA laws that protect students. Sometimes situations were tragic; sometimes frightening, sometimes dangerous. It was essential that we communicate truth in a careful way with the exact people who needed to know whether that meant staff, students, parents, and/or public. We had plans and templates and letters and press releases prepped and ready to go for every eventuality. And I prayed I never had to use them. Fortunately the need was rare, but when we were in crisis mode, we were prepared to communicate effectively.
Make a plan today by asking yourself these four questions of the top three most likely crisis scenarios for your workplace. Lost data, serious accident or illness, computer server crash, inventory shortage. Whatever keeps you up at night. Plan for those emergencies, and include communication in your planning.
Then pray you never need it.