“Control the narrative” is advice often heard in PR circles when the conversation turns to crisis communication.
It’s also a trope that sets unrealistic expectations for PR professionals and executives worrying about reputational brushfires, cautions a Florida International University program director and longtime communications executive.
“Recognize that when you’re in the midst of crisis, especially as you factor in the issues associated with social media and social media platforms, we cannot necessarily control the message,” says Aileen Izquierdo, interim communications department chair, and graduate director of FIU’s Global Strategic Communications master’s degree program.
What is within the communicator’s control are preparation, knowledge of one’s systems and points of contact, and redundancies within those systems.
A communications pro with more than two decades’ experience, Izquierdo will join FIU instructor Heather Radi-Bermudez in an enlightening session at Ragan’s Social Media Conference for PR, Marketing and Communications Professionals March 11–13, 2020, at Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort.
They will address the topic, “When social media goes ‘into the unknown’: Do’s and don’ts for savvy crisis response.”
“We can’t control what other people are saying about us,” Izquierdo says. “We can’t control what other people are writing about us. We can’t control what the comments are on a social media platform. We have a duty and a responsibility to accurately, and in a very timely fashion, respond to as much as we possibly can.”
How then to act in a crisis? Here are a few tips:
1. Educate your leaders.
In the middle of a crisis, the last thing you need is to have clients, board members or the CEO stomping into your office and yelling about your need to control the message, Izquierdo says. This means educating the clients and executives alike about what you can realistically do.
One frustration communicators face is when leaders don’t realize that a crisis isn’t something you can turn off like a spigot.
“They don’t understand that we can’t go turn off the comments [on social media],” she says. “Turning off the comments on a social media platform is actually going to create a new set of problems.”
The solution is to be proactive and to train leaders. “On top of our difficult job,” she adds, “I think that we absolutely need to be educators of those in our organization so that they understand the importance of the heavy lifting ahead of time.”
2. Prepare for possibilities.
One of the most important ways to mitigate a crisis is to prepare preemptively. That means drawing up communication plans, doing tabletop exercises and having drills for certain crises.
What are the vulnerabilities of your organization? What are the things that realistically could harm you, your employees or your reputation?
“The heavy lifting needs to come at the beginning,” Izquierdo says, “and sometimes there is little patience for that. … We have to build into the business systems the time to develop an accurate picture of what the vulnerability for our organization may or may not be.”
3. Prewrite essential crisis communications.
Having determined the risks, you can compose many types of statements or social media posts in advance.
Is there a possibility of a lockdown due to a threat of violence? Draft a statement or series of statements covering lockdowns. Do you live on a seacoast where hurricanes happen, or in a part of the country prone to tornadoes? Write communications about closing your business, mentioning that you’ll offer more information about the situation when you have it.
“These kinds of statements, you don’t have to necessarily re-create [every time],” Izquierdo says. “You can adjust a little bit and, you know, change the name of the hurricane, change your dates on it or what have you, but have them ready to go.”
4. Respond where the crisis occurs.
When something goes viral—whether it’s a video, a tweet or an Instagram post—respond on the platform where the crisis occurs. Often when companies see a viral post that concerns them, they post a statement on their own website, but neglect the medium where the action is happening.
“That’s kind of like, ‘OK, we’ll check off the box. There’s a statement. We’re done,” Izquierdo says. “It’s important to be where the crisis is. For viral videos, if these are being shared amongst YouTube users, then we need to have a YouTube-related response. … We need to live where that crisis is happening.”