How to develop a timely, truthful crisis comms strategy

Defining a crisis before it happens is key.

You never forget your first crisis. Mine began on a Saturday morning in early 2016. I’d just interviewed for my dream job – director of Media and Community Relations for my company. I was serving in an interim capacity for the role, and I was confident about my prospects. Life was really good.

A few hours later, I received an urgent phone call from my boss, letting me know that an employee had been severely injured on the job. We needed to activate our crisis team and start working our crisis communication plan – something I’d never done before. My mind raced, my heart dropped to my stomach, and in a mere moment, that unforgettable weekend became a pivotal learning point for the years that have followed in my career.

At Southwire, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of wire and cable and an emerging influence in many important electrical markets, we have more than 8,000 people that are located across North America and around the globe. This is my 12th year with the company, and six of those years have been spent leading our crisis communication team.

In that time, I have learned firsthand that how communicators react during a crisis can have a long-lasting impact on our company’s reputation among employees, customers and the public. We know, even more so over the last two years, that being proactive and ready to respond is integral to maintaining trust and mitigating confusion and chaos in times of crisis.

But how do we know when to step into gear?

Define what ‘crisis’ means for your organization.

When dealing with difficult or uncertain circumstances, the first question we should ask is, “Is this a crisis?” Our team at Southwire defines crisis as an emergency that poses a significant threat to our employees, operations, reputation and/or viability.

Sometimes defining a crisis is clear cut, such as instances like natural disasters or the aforementioned employee injury. Other times, the situation can be a little more difficult to distinguish. Having a definition of crisis for your team in place helps you gauge when to activate your team and your plan.

In the early days of the pandemic, we knew that we would likely consider ourselves in crisis mode at some point. To make it even clearer, we refined our crisis definition to include three triggers for when we would activate our plan:

  1. If an active case of COVID-19 was reported on one of our campuses (looking back on this, we had no idea what was coming)
  2. If local, state or national COVID regulations required us to shut down operations
  3. If COVID significantly disrupted our supply chain.

Having that clarity in place helped us to be ready to respond when the first case of COVID-19 was reported by one of our employees. While it was still scary, and there were still so many things we didn’t know, it was clear that it was time to start working our plan.

Develop a plan, build your team and prepare proactively.
Many times, when crisis situations happen, communicators feel caught in the middle.
We’re in the midst of varying emotions, and often chaos, with many people asking us what to do. Having a plan or a structure in place keeps us grounded and helps set the right tone, no matter how tough the situation is.

The plan we have established for our team prepares us to:

  • Assess a situation and determine what communication response is needed
  • Assemble our crisis communication team to recommend appropriate responses
  • Identify audiences that should be informed about the situation
  • Communicate the facts of the crisis to those audiences in a clear, consistent and timely manner
  • Demonstrate Southwire’s care and concern for our employees, customers, community and other stakeholders
  • Minimize rumors and incorrect information
  • Maintain trust and credibility

Effective crisis communication happens when you have a strong, trained group in place that is ready to respond. At Southwire, we have 12 to 15 leaders from various areas of the business that sit on our crisis team, as well as a third-party communications consultant – and everyone has a backup.

The plan doesn’t sit on a shelf and collect dust. We conduct a formal simulation event every year with our crisis communication team and then review and update our plan at least quarterly to ensure we’re always ready.

Be truthful and timely to build trust.
When you lead with the truth, it ultimately builds confidence in you, your team and your organization as the trusted avenue for information. In a crisis, it is imperative to state the facts – don’t speculate. By being consistent in this approach, your audience will look to you as their primary source for information.

Timeliness is much the same. The quicker you can share information about what is going on, less speculation is built and you stay in control of the message. If you spend too much time trying to build a perfect statement or wait until you have all the information to say something, you’ve allowed more time for rumors and more time for people to begin to distrust you. A timely message builds confidence, comfort and trust in you, your leaders and/or your organization as the messenger.

These learnings aren’t exclusive to crisis, either, but nonetheless important points to keep in mind when building any communication strategy. However, when unexpected circumstances strike, things move quickly, and it’s important to be prepared. As we move forward, may we always be ready to respond – remaining clear in our approach, working our plans and staying timely and truthful with our messages.

Ashley Bush is the director of communications and giving back at Southwire.

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