A Guest Post By Brad Phillips, Author, The Media Training Bible
That piece of crisis communications advice is a perennial favorite from PR professionals, a nugget of irrefutable wisdom that few people dare challenge. I regularly give readers and clients the same advice.
But as I look back at that sentence, it strikes me as incomplete and in need of further explanation.
Here’s the problem with that sentence: It doesn’t define what a “crisis” is. Does that advice mean that you should respond to every allegation some random dude hurls at you on Twitter? Or that you should respond immediately to mini-crises that may never be known to more than 12 people? And how can you tell the difference between a true brewing crisis and a small annoyance that will quickly flame out on its own?
To help answer those questions, I reached out to four respected crisis communicators. They offered smart suggestions to help guide you in the earliest moments of a “crisis.”
Melissa Agnes, a crisis professional who blogs at MelissaAgnes.com, distinguishes between a crisis and “light buzz.” For a crisis in which “the word is out and people are talking, you need to release your statement ASAP,” she writes. But if there’s only “light buzz,” where there’s “a possibility that it might just die down on its own, you have room to monitor and wait to see if a response (and what type of response) is really necessary.” She rightly points out that “responding too quickly might provoke a crisis that otherwise may not have happened.”
Jeff Domansky, known as The PR Coach, agrees, saying that, “Reacting too soon, or over-reacting, can accelerate a crisis unnecessarily….try the RSP approach. Ready. Set. Pause. Get the facts. Prepare key messages. And then use your judgment on when it’s best to speak.” But Domansky also says there’s a major exception to that rule: “If there’s further risk or danger to others, you must respond.”
Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, concurs, writing: “Warning signs of crises do not necessarily require an immediate response, but they should be monitored closely. The perceived credibility of online chatter is as or more important than its frequency. An organization needs to assess on a case by case basis whether the volume, variety and credibility of online chatter has moved a situation to the level of imminent or actual crisis and respond accordingly.”
And Josh Cobden, a senior vice president with Toronto-based Environics Communications, says: “While crisis management always requires ‘on the spot’ assessment and strategy, some of the heavy lifting can be done in advance by defining markers or thresholds that govern how/if one responds. This can take the form of certain issues that always require a response (e.g. the suggestion that a product is unsafe), or volume levels (e.g. a certain number of posts on Facebook). The biggest issues all of us PR pros need to come to terms with is that the speed and ease of digital communications today presents new challenges — a spark can become an inferno, both because of what you don’t do (respond when necessary) or do (over-react, react too quickly).”
All four crisis pros are exactly right. Responding “immediately” is almost always the right call for crises in which reporters are already calling you in droves. But for smaller “crises,” sometimes it’s more important to be ready to respond than to actually respond.