I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Hi, I’m dealing with a little issue here. I wonder if you have any communication advice.”
Thankfully, rarely do we see PR disasters as large as the ones recently in the news. Rather, when stuff happens, frequently we are dealing with an issue and not a crisis. On the list of things to do during “an issue” is communication.
Without a proper communication response, issues can grow a life of their own and become a crisis of reputation.
The goal of strategic communication during an issue is to be in front of, rather than running behind, the communication needed to contain the issue to its proper proportions. Like a crisis, issues may emerge without much warning. Most experts agree that how you respond in the first 24 hours colors the perception of how an issue has been handled overall. Therefore, in all cases, I recommend that the leaders make a deliberate decision about the necessary internal and external communication efforts needed. Not every issue will require a complicated communication response. Still, I say – prepare anyways! And, remember, you just can’t over-communicate.
What is an issue and what is a crisis?
I truly don’t know if there is a clear-cut distinction between a crisis and an issue. However, here are some samples that come to mind from my own experiences as a communication director.
- A bus accident with no injuries, very little damage to vehicle(s) – that’s an issue depending on circumstances. An accident with serious injuries – that’s a crisis.
- Vandalism in the bathrooms – issue. Vandalism that has the hallmarks of a hate crime – that could escalate to crisis.
- A dissatisfied customer, client, or parent blasts you on social media? An issue that seems like a crisis. And it could escalate.
- A dissatisfied customer blasts you on social media and it is a serious accusation that affects your market – could become a crisis of reputation.
Every situation is different. A careful analysis will help you make a decision about what you are dealing with and the communication response that is appropriate. Whatever your decision – don’t leave communication to chance. A well planned communication response is always helpful!
There are some common steps to help you analyze your approach to communicating about an issue.
The first thing I always try to do is frame the incident – is this an issue or a crisis? To understand the situation, I gather the facts to determine the scope of the situation. Then I ask questions, such as:
People: Who/how many people are involved? What is the seriousness of the incident? Are lives in danger or are lives lost? Is there danger to people or property? Who are the most important people affected by the issue and what and how do we communicate to them?
Place: Where did the issue occur? Is it truly your organization’s issue or perhaps is it an event that involves people affiliated with the organization. If that is the case, you may have a communication need because of the affiliation of the person to your organization or you may not. Think it through.
Potential: Is this a short-lived issue? Is there the potential for this incident to become larger? Does the issue affect your market?
If, after analysis, you know this is an issue rather than an all-out crisis, you can develop the appropriate communication response plan. Remember: whenever people are involved, be empathetic of all those involved. Your plan should be clear and straight-forward. Here are steps to consider for an issue-response plan:
Involve people who can help and involve them early in your planning.
Develop authentic key messages for internal and external audiences.
Determine roles and responsibilities for disseminating the key messages both internally and externally.
Decide on the communication tools, as well as how you will monitor the situation and the communication.
No one ever knows when an issue will strike. Therefore, preparation is key. Here are more resources to help you.
This article is a great guide about the importance of social media guidelines to help you navigate online, too.
On my Resources page, I’ve created a quick overview about communication during an issue.
Even if you decide not respond to an issue, I recommend that you prepare a communication response regardless. If you’re asking the question, chances are you need a plan. Just keep it handy. Then, should a turn of events cause you to pursue a more active communication approach, you’ll be ready.