Communicating During a Crisis Without Causing One

Communicating during a crisis without causing one.

Communicating During a Crisis Without Causing One

Deep breath: it’s 2021. We will forever look back on 2020 as the year of the crises. Now we can truly say, hindsight is 20/20. Did last year feel like one crisis after another? If so, it’s an excellent time of year for reviewing, reflecting, updating and expanding your crisis management and communications plans. Whatever comes your way this year, let’s make sure you’re communicating during the crisis without causing one.

“United Breaks Guitars”

Among the first social-media-fueled examples of a viral business crisis is United Breaks Guitars; a 2009 song and viral video by Canadian musician Dave Carroll and his band, Sons of Maxwell. It tells the real-life experience of how Carroll’s guitar (a $3500 Taylor acoustic) was broken during a trip on United Airlines in 2008, the unfavorable reaction of the airline and his months-long, unsuccessful saga to recoup his loss. The customer service nightmare has garnered over 20 million YouTube views since it debuted. Shortly after release, the story appeared on national and cable broadcast news media. Newspapers too caught the story. Carroll did over 200 interviews with media across North America in the first few months following its release. Taylor Guitars invited Carroll and the band to their factory, and the coup de ta; Harvard Business Review wrote a case study chronicling the story.

What kind of impact can this type of crisis have on a business? After months of dead ends, Carroll told the airline he’d accept $1,200 worth of travel vouchers as compensation for the repair cost. United refused. Compare that to millions of people singing along to the trilogy of songs inspired by the event.

The bad public relations also had an effect on people’s travel decisions. The BBC reported that United’s stock price dropped 10 percent within three to four weeks of the video’s release – a decrease in valuation of $180 million. That’s a crisis on top of a crisis mixed with chaos.

The Irony of Crisis Planning

Crises can take many forms. Essentially, a business crisis is any unexpected, unplanned situation, event or threat that suddenly or stealthily impacts a business. Events that threaten the stability of a company can include an occurrence interrupting production, sharply impacting revenue or negatively affecting your brand and reputation. United Airlines created their own crisis when they did not respond quickly enough with a reasonable solution to satisfy their customer.

There’s a difference between crisis management and crisis communications. For clarity, management addresses the problem and implements solutions; communication manages the message, tells the story and sets expectations. The latter of which we’ll focus on here. Keep in mind, however, crisis communications does not exist without first, a problem to solve. Many companies are well prepared to address the problem and fix it. Fewer prepare for the communications necessary to inform employees, customers, neighbors, government officials, public safety and the news media.

The irony is working through a crisis takes planning. For marketing and communications, it’s as much managing reputation and brand image with information and facts specific to the circumstances.

Let’s assume you have some semblance of a crisis management process already in place. Does it include communications? Here’s what you can do now to be ready for what may be ahead.

Pre-planning Readiness

  1. Refresh your crisis management and communications team information: Update names, phone numbers, alternate contacts, roles, phone tree or text contact information, etc.
  2. Provide expectations and action steps to team members, including meeting locations, directions, etc.
  3. Reassess weaknesses and update with new information: What’s been resolved, what might present a new weakness? How will these be handled in a crisis?
  4. Review crisis communications plans, draft documents, contact lists for the media, community, etc. Inform crisis management leaders of the communications plan, process and expectations. Ensure off-site access for every possible item that may be needed.
  5. Bring the team together to discuss changes and review plans for managing the crisis. This may include a mock rehearsal. Often times, teams are specific to circumstances. A manufacturing problem involves one group of players, while a viral video concern involves a different team. Include communications as a key player and inform leaders how this will be managed.

Communications During a Crisis

  1. Track facts in a way accessible to the communications team, including:
    • What you do know
    • What you don’t know
    • What may happen
    • What may not happen
    • What will not happen
    • When and where information will be updated
  2. Create a messaging platform based on the status of the situation. There are entire books written on what to say, what not to say and when, where and how to say it. That’s another post altogether. For now, the foundation of a messaging platform is maintaining and building trust using truth, authenticity and empathy. A great book on the subject is The Decency Code, by Stephen Harrison and Jim Lukaszewski, published in March 2020.
  3. Prepare need-based communications for specific audiences. For example, employees may need to know not to report to work. Customers may need to know their shipments are delayed. Organize audiences, determine what matters to each group and the best vehicles to deliver your message. While planning, you may consider the Concentric Circle Model, developed as part of my crisis response role earlier in my career. The more impactful a situation is to an audience or person the closer they are to the center of a circle. Communication vehicles radiate concurrently from the most intimate – face-to-face and one-on-one – at the center and moving out to phone, group meeting/conference call, and so on finishing typically with a written news release to the media, (More on this process too, in a later post.)
  4. Prepare media spokespeople with clear, concise messages, facts, numbers and timing.
  5. Monitor brand information in social media, chat rooms, etc. for any signs of concern specific to the issue.
  6. Update regularly until the situation is fully resolved and business returns to normal.

Axiom’s experience includes helping clients think through communications during a crisis. Sometimes, that can be an evolution of business – think Kodak and the digital image evolution. For more reading on crisis readiness, see our blog post Getting Hammered: A Local Hardware Store-y. We’re happy to help you and your organization work through the challenge of crisis communication preparedness. Call us. Stacy Einck,

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