The five most important rules of crisis communication (that not every media trainer can tell you)

Author: Cormac Smith
Date: February 11, 2021

I have been involved in crisis communication for almost two decades. In that time, I’ve faced everything from failing schools, child sexual exploitation, and an insurrection by Irish travellers in the English countryside. As deputy director of communications at the cabinet office I helped counter a tsunami of state-sponsored disinformation aimed at the UK by the Kremlin. This came with the attempted murder, in 2018, of a former Russian spy on British soil by agents of the Russian state. Just prior to that I had spent two years advising the foreign minister of Ukraine, a country at war with Russia, when almost every day brought a fresh crisis and communication challenge.

In all this time I have learned how important it is to react fast, accurately and honestly in a crisis. But I have also learned that this alone is not enough. Having a plan, strong networks and good practices in place is also essential. No amount of last-minute slick messaging and interview technique is ever going to be enough to save your hide in a crisis.

Some of the following may sound blindingly obvious, but 20 years in the game has taught me that in far too many organisations the basics are still missing… and when trouble strikes,  reputations and trust, too often, get shredded.

So, here are my five rules for dealing with a crisis:

1. Have a plan

Too many organisations don’t think about a crisis until it is upon them. The truth is, it is never a question of IF, it is always a question of WHEN trouble will arise. So make sure you have a robust crisis plan in place that includes protocols, key responsibilities, and 24hr on-call rotas etc. And be sure to find the time to regularly test and update your plan with scenario training involving key members of your organisation. Remember, many issues can be anticipated and planned for. It is always surprising how many organisations try to bury their head in the sand hoping something may not be noticed. It pretty much always will, so get on the front foot. 

Of course, sometimes you can’t anticipate a crisis – they just happen. It’s when they do that plans and practices are tested. Knowing the protocol for all employees, and how to assemble the crisis team fast in order to make critical decisions in an informed and timely fashion, is essential to ensure the first steps are correct steps. Even deciding who speaks to the media and in what order. How you react in the first 24 hours will determine much of how any crisis plays out in the longer term.

2. Put in place a crisis team

We mentioned the crisis team. Every organisation should have one in place, consisting of members of the senior management team, including the CEO, and the corporate communications team and legal team. Relevant frontline and operational colleagues will also need to be involved depending on the nature of the issue at hand. Every designated member of the core team should have at least two ready-to-step-in backups to allow for vacation, sickness, absence and unexpected personal tragedy. The cab-rank principal.

You must also be clear who your key spokespersons are. There needs to be a pecking order, backups in every position and an understanding of who to deploy under what circumstances.  Make sure your key spokespeople have the requisite skills too. Specialist media trainers should be used routinely to work on generic scenarios or issues that could possibly arise. 

90% of the preparation can be done by developing the skills and technique necessary to face the media under pressure. When an unexpected crisis does strike, your key people will be well prepared – requiring just final preparation around specific narrative, key messaging and interview technique. If possible, bring back those specialist trainers in the very early days of a crisis so strategy and technique can be developed and refined.

3. Communicate with key stakeholders and partners   

How you communicate with your most important stakeholders, and how in turn they tell your story, is critical to determining how your reputation will fare through any crisis. There are three broad stakeholder groups: your employees; your key partners and external stakeholder groups (these will vary from sector to sector, but you will know who they are); and the media. 

It may seem odd to some to place the media in this category but I have been able to do my best work over the years when I have developed strong relationships, based on trust and mutual interest, with media and journalists. They will – and should – hold you to account and ask difficult questions, but if you have a relationship you will always start from a better place.

As far as possible, none of these groups should be hearing about your issue from each other – they should all hear about it from you first. After all, this is about trust. Think about the degree of planning and coordination this requires. Get it right and you will manage the message and maintain trust far more effectively.

4. React according to the ASH principal

Crisis communications is no different to good strategic communications, it just needs to be carried out with more ACCURACY, SPEED and HONESTY. In other words, you need to bring your ‘A-game’. The fundamental rules are the same – understand your audience, be clear about what you want to achieve (with your communications), have a clear strategy, do the correct things at the correct time in the correct place and with the correct people… and evaluate your work continuously.

5. Learn and move on

Every crisis will involve things that could have been done and said better. The key is to learn from both what worked AND what did not. Monitor every media interview carefully so adjustments and improvements can be made as you go along.

Most importantly, when the crisis is over, bring together your core team and other key people involved and have an honest debrief. Consider in hindsight what worked and what did not work and feed this learning into future plans. Often the pressure to get back to business as usual is so strong, and the relief that the crisis has passed is so great, that organisations don’t always make time for this important final step. Take the time – it is always worth it, and always helps better prepare your organisation for the future.

Baird’s CMC provides expertise in all aspects of communications, messaging and media management. Specialising in crisis management, we provide training to high profile clients throughout the world. Find out more at our website or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Your Project Team

Raquel Cruz and Cormac Smith bring significant experience in all aspects of strategic communication and public relations. Having worked across our organisation to develop our new product offerings, specifically aimed at the current challenges we all face, they will assemble and lead the strongest teams to address your issues. With our unique global network rest assured you will always be working with the best in the business.

Raquel Cruz

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Raquel is a communications and project management specialist. She will be coordinating the introduction of our new services and supporting clients in the management and delivery of their projects.

Since working for Baird’s CMC, Raquel has been involved in communications, research, and project management for clients including Roche, IFPMA, ViiV Healthcare, Angelini Pharma and Gavi, with accountability for everything from conception to successful completion.

  • Speaks fluent Spanish and English
  • Masters’ degree in International Journalism from Cardiff University, UK
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Cormac Smith

Skills Development
Project Director

Cormac is a highly experienced strategic communications specialist. He has been integral to the development of these new services and will be working closely with clients to understand their needs and develop solutions.

In a career spanning three decades Cormac has held a number of senior positions, including Deputy Director of Communications at the UK Cabinet Office, Strategic Communications Advisor to the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, and as Director of Communications for several UK local authorities.

  • Media training and public speaking expert
  • Experienced in crisis communications
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