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Crisis comms lessons from the expert

Now that the ‘golden hour’ has become a golden 15 minutes, what are the key principles for crisis communications in the digital age?

Crisis comms is a specialist service from Intelligent Conversation, and last week the whole team spent a day refreshing our skills with a national and international leader in the field.

Former chief spokesperson for the BBC, Donald Steel – now working as an international responder to crisis which includes major aviation accidents – delivered an immersive session covering the latest developments and key principles of crisis communications in the era of social media and smartphones.

Wondering what he said? Here are just a few of the most important outtakes.

  • Speed matters – the fabled ‘golden hour’ for company response has long gone. Smartphone technology means that the first pictures from a disaster like an airline crash will be live within 60 seconds of the incident happening. If an organisation wants any chance of controlling a story, 15 minutes is now the window.

 

  • Silence is a statement – an increasingly cynical public today demands immediate answers, so always ensure your organisation is vocal during a crisis. If you stay silent either deliberately or by lack of agreement on what to say, it can lead to public assumptions of guilt or cover up.

 

  • Streamline approvals – a complex approvals process has a habit of stopping or slowing approvals. If you do get something issued to the media, it is likely to be the blandest imaginable statement of fact, so be warned – an overly sanitised statement will make your organisation seem corporate and uncaring. Worse still, it will leave questions unanswered which might raise suspicions. To avoid this, companies should designate one, reliably contactable senior manager to be the point of approval in an emergency.

 

  • Preapproved statements – to further protect against the above problem, a key piece of advice is to produce a bank of CEO sanctioned, situation-specific responses. With luck, they will never be needed – but in an emergency, they will provide the speed and dexterity you need to protect your company reputation.

 

A realistic crisis response drill rounded off our session, with members of the team put through their paces as planners and spokespeople in a (rather aggressive!) press conference scenario.

We all hope that crisis communications is something we never have to do but, in today’s social media-driven world, being prepared to respond quickly and effectively is an essential communications skill.