Communicating in a crisis

What’s a crisis? Anything your customers decide

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven in Upstate Business Journal, Sept. 8, 2017

“It’s not if it’s going to happen but when.” That’s Robyn Zimmerman’s take on crises. And as a veteran of decades of crisis communication and PR experience she should know.

Communications are - or should be - a part of every business’s disaster/continuity plan. But a lot of you will question why you will ever need it. After all, you’re a restaurant, or a dress shop, or bar. When the hurricane comes, everyone will just know  you are closed. Right?

Maybe. But today anticipating what kind of crisis you might face is like picking six numbers.

Zimmerman has seen it all. In 1995, as the communications chief for the state Department of Corrections, she handled the hostage situation at Broad River Correctional Institution. And in 2014 as director of public relations for the Greenville Health System she was front and center throughout the summer outbreak of a microbacterial infection that claimed several lives.

Today, she works with Crawford Strategy, and sees the current crisis landscape as more like guerilla warfare. Social media has given companies an important communication avenue, but it also has the capacity to become a crisis as well. “People,” she says, “are constantly on social media. And they have trigger fingers.”

A “crisis” could be developing on social media and you might not even know it. Example: With hundreds of restaurants to choose from in Greenville, what would it take to drive customers away? A social media post about food poisoning, perhaps, that spreads through Facebook friends? Will you know why your Saturday night crowd is dwindling? How will you address the issue.

Let’s stick with the food poisoning example for a minute.

A customer gets sick and calls to let you know. You really don’t know how many others might have gotten sick. What do you do?

“Why bring attention to an issue if no one really knows about it?” asks Robin Blackwood, PR consultant and owner of Blackwood Public Relations. Why? First because you don’t really know who’s talking about it, or if the information on their Facebook posts is accurate. “Why play defense,” she asks, “when you can play offense. Sometimes if you are forthcoming, honest and concerned, it works in your favor.”


To Delete or Not to Delete?

A bad review, a nasty post, an unfair criticism. We all get them on social media. Most people’s knee-jerk reaction is to delete them. And certainly you can do that. But you may be missing an opportunity or creating a bigger issue.

Deleting the post, doesn’t mean it won’t be floating around in people’s news feeds. You cannot unring the social media bell.

Experts differ but most do agree that often a crisis gives you an opportunity to present your best self to the world. Even on social media this is an opportunity. Rather than delete the post and try to hide the bad news, answer it. Be direct, admit a mistake if there is one, offer a solution, state what you’ve done or will do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Or offer a strong explanation for the company’s decision.

Sometimes social media conflates issues, dragging politics or social issues into business. Your company has values and this is a time to stand by them.

Don’t get sucked into an argument. If the critic responds with more attacks, don’t engage. They will eventually be seen for what they are; but you will gain from having tackled an issue head one.

– Laura Haight

For Zimmerman and Blackwood, having a crisis communication plan has become elevated in importance as the time frame from incident to public knowledge has collapsed. “You have no time anymore when a crisis occurs,” says Zimmerman. Blackwood concurs: “Today, a crisis is instantly visible and viral; and very capable of creating significant damage to your business and brand.”

Active shooter, workplace violence, regulatory failure, job site accident, employee public misbehavior. The list of possibilities is endless. How can you prepare yourself?

Assess your risk

Start with a vulnerability matrix (goo.gl/MRGSzT). Plot the risks of things that could happen against the amount of damage they could do to your business. The high risk/high damage things should be the ones you plan for most. Think about all your products or aspects of your business and ask yourself: What can go wrong?

Build your team


If you have a PR or marketing director, they will often be the face of your company for the public. But many small businesses don’t. Decide who’s going to be on your team keeping in mind that different situations may call for different voices. As a starting place, Zimmerman suggests you designate a chief communicator and then adapt from there. For incidents that might get media coverage, you will need someone who can think on their feet. Reporters have a way of asking questions that aren’t on your script.

Review contacts and communication channels

Not every incident requires a full court press, but have a plan to handle one when it occurs. You should have a media list. You also need to know how to access all your communication channels – do you have access to the Facebook page, the Twitter account, Instagram? Make sure someone on the crisis team (and an alternate) has control of all that social media. You may need all or part of it to respond to a situation. Blackwood also urges companies not to forget internal communication. Your employees can be getting lunch and be asked about an “event”. If you haven’t notified them of the situation and armed them with some facts, they may fumble the ball.

Understand regulatory and legal requirements

From hacking to data exposure, industrial accident or environmental spill, there are hundreds of potential incidents that require either a legal or regulatory notification. These would fall under crisis communication – even though the response may not be “public”.

Write a holding statement

For serious incidents, timeliness is critical. Zimmerman suggests you have an initial statement at the ready that let’s the public know you are aware of a situation and you are investigating. Being prepared with that initial communication is reassuring and buys time for you to find out what’s really going on.

You have put a lot of work into your business. Lack of preparedness for a crisis or an emergency can seriously and sometimes irreparably damage your reputation. It’s the one risk you really can’t afford.

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