Crisis Communications 101 – The Public’s Agenda
Posted on March 6, 2009
From peanut recalls to political scandals, it is clear that the public has high expectations regarding how the leaders of corporations and government agencies perform in a crisis. Regardless of the situation, the public expects leaders to be transparent and to communicate effectively with them. Those who choose a different path, do so at their own risk.
People expect leaders to communicate in a timely and caring manner. And one of the keys to responding effectively in a crisis is understanding the public’s agenda. Whatever the scenario, the public has a few key questions that make up their agenda when a crisis hits. They want to know:
- What happened?
- Who is to blame?
- What are you doing to address the situation?
- When did you first think this could happen?
- What could you have done to prevent it?
- What will you do to prevent it from happening again?
Media outlets understand the public’s agenda and they quickly swing into action in a crisis to find answers. In doing so, they look for facts, human interest, drama, controversy and change that they can package into compelling stories to educate the public about the situation.
In the midst of trying times, leaders are thrust in front of reporters and expected to reassure the public. But, in the initial hours of a crisis, information is often at a minimum. That’s one reason why when we counsel our clients we say, the most important thing is not to have all the answers, but to have a commitment to fixing the problem and doing the right thing.
This advice rings true for any company or organization going through a difficult time. People affected by a crisis want to know leaders are doing the right thing and working diligently on solutions.
Furthermore, people want to know in a crisis how much leaders care. The old saying goes, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” We expect leaders to show empathy, competence, honesty and a dedication to finding solutions.
Extend this example to any organization in Corporate America going through a crisis as a result of workplace violence, a massive product recall, layoffs or allegations of corporate malfeasance, and what we find is that effectively managing communications often ultimately requires owning up to the problem.
Owning the problem and effectively managing communications requires what we call the Four R’s of crisis communications. They include: 1) regret;
2) responsibility; 3) reform, and 4) restitution. This is essentially a road map for communicating in a crisis.
When using the Four R’s, a corporate leader going through a crisis – say a massive product recall -will express regret for the incident and to those harmed, take responsibility for what happened, discuss ways the company plans to change in order to avoid future problems and highlight how consumers affected by the situation will be made whole. Not only is this approach the right thing to do, it also addresses the agendas the public and the media have when a crisis hits.
Essentially, the leader’s agenda is to tell his or her side of the story in a way the audience understands. They must show appropriate sympathy to victims and families and they must focus on moving beyond the problem and working toward solutions.
Reassuring a concerned public is critical in times of crisis. And advanced planning is the best way companies can prepare themselves to be ready to respond effectively during trying times. Just as emergency and medical personnel prepare for disasters using mock scenarios, corporate leaders should undergo simulated crisis training situations from time to time to gauge their organization’s ability to respond.