“Let’s wait to put something out until we can get the message JUST RIGHT” used to be the old adage for handing crisis communications. And, back when that was the expert advice, it was good advice.
Today, it is still wise to think heavily about the message you are putting out there, but the timing of communications has changed what is a reasonable time to wait before responding to a crisis.
Because the news cycle and rumor mill was slower, we had time to gather a group and brainstorm for hours about the perfect message, we had time to consult with our legal counsel, and we had time to craft the story our way. The problem is, with the new age of rapid information, we’ve lost that time.
So what do we do? What hasn’t changed is that it’s important to get out in front of the story, to be the one to tell the story. So we must be willing and ready to just that, respond within minutes and, at the same time, be unapologetic about not having all the information people want right away.
School shooting communication as a model
We see this often with messaging for school shootings. We see messages that say things like:
- Shots fired on campus. Shelter in place and await further instructions.
- We can confirm that there was one shooter but we cannot confirm the shooter’s identity at this time.
- An ALL CLEAR has been announced at campus. Please resume normal campus activities. Further details on the emergency will be announced at a later time.
So, information is disseminated, but not unknown or touchy information. That you can take time seek counsel on. One of my most-used lines in crisis communications I learned from watching Donald Grady, the Police Chief at Northern Illinois University, during their 2008 school shooting post-press conference. Whenever someone asked him a question he wasn’t ready to answer, he would simply say something like, “I’m not prepared to answer that question at this time. Next question.”
Bringing crisis communications advice into the business/organization world
We can use similar crisis communications strategies in the business world. For example, if a CEO unexpectedly resigns, the company should be prepared to respond immediately. Waiting three days to craft the perfect announcement is public relations suicide. By then, employees have come up with their own version of the story and leaked it to the press/community and the former CEO has probably published his or her version of the story as well.
Crafting the perfect message is ideal, but step one should always be to get out in front of the message. Then, by all means, work on crafting the perfect response.