Many of my clients aren't prepared to communicate in a crisis. That's not too surprising because many of them aren't prepared to communicate when there isn't a crisis -- they lack a communications infrastructure, they don't have a strategy, they don't have any key messages. But a crisis is special. It happens quickly. It can be unfair. It can do more damage in one instance than years worth of communicating. Your next crisis needs to be handled well.
The place to start is to recognize that a crisis can happen anywhere, anytime, and in ways you never thought of. Everyone always thinks a crisis is when your building burns down or your CEO is arrested for fraud. It can also be when you get a mega-donation or when someone gets your website mixed up with another and you wind up being bombarded with web visitors and emails. It happens. It often is the unexpected. So, how can you prepare?
Planning is the key. You need a crisis communications plan that tells your organization what you will do in an emergency and how you will do it. The plan should put into one document a number of key steps.
First and foremost, you need to know who is in charge. This sounds silly, but I was once in an organization where different parts spent the initial part of the crisis arguing about who should respond. They had a plan, but they couldn't agree whether the crisis was a crisis. Don't make the same mistake. Make a list of who needs to respond and how. Make sure there is an hierarchy, so that if one key person is away another can step into their shoes.
Second, take the time it takes to get things right. In a crisis there's enormous pressure to get something out the door as quick as possible. However, many times you don't have enough information to respond. It takes time to find out what happened and figure out how to deal with it. So, either keep silent until you are sure or say that you're "looking into it" and will make an announcement shortly. Many times the way an organization responds gets more attention than what they say. Don't make the mistake of saying som thing that turns out to be wrong.
The biggest issue is what to say. Obviously, you must respond to each situation differently. However, there are some things you need to keep in mind. You must always express empathy, especially for those who are or appear to be "victims". Not expressing some emotion makes you look cold and unfeeling. You must also keep control. Don't speculate. Don't guess. Don't make a joke. The CEO of BP made one stupid remark about "getting his life back" after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and he was fast fried by the media and politicians alike. Stick to the issue. And you must let people know what you will do moving forward. Tell the media when you will get back to them. Tell the public where they can go for more information. Don't make them guess or search for information.
Finally, you need to think now about the ways you will deliver your message in a crisis. If your website sucks right now, it will suck even more in a crisis. If you have a low profile now, your profile will sink even lower. If you can't communicate directly with your stakeholders now, they won't be listening by the time you get around to doing so. In short, if your communications infrastructure isn't the best it can be right now, a crisis will break it.
So, when should you respond in a crisis? The answer is simple. Respond before the crisis ever happens with a plan.