You can get lots of advice on how to respond in a crisis, but the most frequently asked question is whether to respond. There can be good reasons to respond quickly – and equally good reasons to pause before responding. The trick is knowing when to apply those good reasons to a specific situation.
Let’s examine two categories of situations for contrasting response approaches.
The first category involves an incident such as a hazardous material spill, an airplane crash or an insensitive comment on social media. These are crises with immediate impacts that demand immediate responses. You want to reassure people affected that you are taking charge and addressing the crisis. You need to communicate quickly and often.
The second category involves slowly unfolding activity such as a lawsuit, an allegation of fraud or a high-profile person in failing health. A response is necessary, but you can hit the pause button to frame a measured response. You don’t want to try a lawsuit in the media, but you may want to make a strategic statement to tell your side of the story, perhaps tied to your legal reply to the lawsuit.
There is an illusory third category of situations. This is the category of crises that organizational leaders imagine will blow over if you just keep your head down. Not responding to such crises has more to do with self-deception than reality. Bad situations don’t go away; they just fester and usually get worse.
The general rule of crisis response is to respond quickly when people face imminent impacts. Responses, as close to real-time as possible, need to center on actions being taken to address those impacts and include, where appropriate, an apology. The strategy is to communicate directly to people immediately affected and as broadly as you can to the public at large.
When a situation merits a pause before responding, you need to use the time to get your facts in a row and then respond authoritatively – and accurately – to charges, claims or inquiries. Consider the delay strategic and act strategically.
Keep in mind, no crisis response rule is fixed in stone. No two situations are identical. A story about a single priest molesting a child is different than a pattern of priests molesting children. Social media has jumbled the rules of crisis response, making even the most modest transgressions fodder for trending topics. You should never assume you have the luxury of time to respond.
Hitting the pause button before responding isn’t the same as not responding. The pause button doesn’t open the door to an escape hatch. If you have the luxury of time before responding to the news media, angry neighbors or frustrated stakeholders, use it wisely. Slowly unfolding crises have a nasty habit of speeding up without notice. The FBI decides to investigate the fraud allegation. That high-profile person dies. More people file similar lawsuits and social media blows up.
Despite what you may think about the news media, there is always the chance someone somewhere will pick up on your crisis situation. News staffs at traditional media may be thinner, but any good reporter can hone in on a story with clickability – and you could be at the center of their narrative. So can an aggressive blogger or a website with a point of view.
So, instead of thinking of whether or not to respond to a crisis situation, think about when you will respond. The default option should be an immediate response, even if it is a limited response to buy time until you have more information to pass along. If you can pause before responding, make the wait worthwhile and say something notable as soon as you can.
One final thought. You don’t get to decide what is a crisis; others do that for you. Ask Pepsi after a Twitter explosion forced the soda maker to pull its ad featuring Kendall Jenner at what appears to be a protest march. Someone thought it was a clever ad. A lot of people thought it was tasteless. Everyone can agree it was a communications crisis.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.