Onset of a crisis with floodwaters in a residential neighborhood after Harvey.

Simple DOs and DON’Ts of Crisis Communications – Get Your *#%^+&! Together

The most basic requirement of crisis communications is to actually communicate, even if you are letting people know the status quo. Silence in a crisis is always deadly.

Your silence, in the form of a static website and/or unreturned voicemails or emails, will be taken to mean you are fiddling as Rome burns. You must continually practice outreach and use multiple platforms simultaneously: website updates, and links to those via social media and email lists.

Also consider the power of live video, such as Facebook Live, to transmit information from officials to concerned parties who may not be able to physically access a public meeting.

The Harvey Flood and Sewage Crisis

Let’s take a recent real-life example: Hurricane Harvey, which affected millions of people in multiple counties. Our Houston-area subdivision (outside of any incorporated municipality) was submerged. The neighborhood homeowners association (HOA) quickly set up a closed Facebook group for neighbors only to communication the emergency conditions and response. After the Coast Guard and volunteer boaters left, many evacuees wanted to hear from those holding down the fort in a handful of dry homes what was happening. How much has the water receded, when can we come back, are there looters?, etc.

This Facebook group continues to serve the neighbors as their HOA board gives them updates and they provide each other with useful links and information.

Now, for a case study in how to improve communications, especially if you are providing essential services, such as sewer service, water utilities and garbage collection, which here is the responsibility of a private company: a municipal utility district. Because I don’t want anyone to construe this blog as shaming, I am not naming the individual MUD. Instead, this is more of a constructive criticism, showing what they did right and what more they can do to improve communications.

In an industrialized nation, water and sewer service tend to be utilities people take for granted. But, when there is a problem, such as 50 inches of rain inundating a region and submerging wastewater treatment plants, residents suddenly take notice. A gurgling toilet can be a canary in the coalmine that there is great potential for a horrible disaster; when the wastewater pumps stop working and there is nowhere for all the sewage to go anyway due to immense flooding, at any moment toilets could start backflowing raw sewage – and lots of it – into homes and businesses.

Now, you have people’s attention! They will go to your website, call your office, call their local politicians. This is where updating and organizing updates are imperative.

case study: refinery fire updates

In a past career, I covered oil industry news and from time to time, that involved covering fatal and near-fatal explosions at a few refineries. The best-case example was a refining company that experienced a massive fire that severely burned employees responding to an explosion. The fire was visible from outside the refinery gates and in the first instance, a company spokesman immediately called reporters back to describe the fire’s location and emergency response, and started issuing statements via email.

That was within the first hour or so. Soon enough, the public relations team sent an update to their listserv for reporters and simultaneously provided the same information in a press release posted to the news section of the website. Each subsequent update was numbered, dated and timestamped.

When you implement this approach, it makes it easy for the party disseminating the information and for its audience to keep track of what information is being given and when. Each statement should contain any old information that remains true and add the new developments in a fluid situation at the top. I recommend bolding the new information and providing the background information again in regular font.

give people what they want: valid information

At the water utility meeting, residents asked why the website was not updated each day during the crisis and a manager responded because there was no new information. A well intentioned, but incorrect answer. In the midst of a crisis, always create new posts to the website, even if you can only state the status quo.

I repeat, reiterate the status quo with the new date and time. Something along the lines of, “we are continuing to repair the X, leaving Y without service. We do not yet have a precise ETA for normal operations.” This way, people know you are doing something and that this is indeed still the latest information.

When I called after two days of silence, the person answering the phone gave three inconsistent answers: your subdivision has no service because it is still flooded, your subdivision was never affected, and something else confusing. Whoever answers the phone must have current and correct information. Period. Don’t leave an employee in the lurch this way. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to the callers, who are paying customers.

Outreach is golden

Write your updates to address multiple stakeholders, such as users of your service, any local officials who are also fielding questions about you and your regulatory authorities.

Find partners within your stakeholders who themselves can share your updates via social media. For instance, during the sewer service crisis, each subdivision had individuals serving as communications liaisons for their own neighborhoods’ private social media groups. It is better to give them the information than let neighborhood social media groups discuss you with speculation.

Fill the gap. Give them updates. They could become your advocates. Your silence might spur antagonism. Instead, let social media be your helper.

In addition, make sure all the contact info on your website is current. Which phone numbers are listed? Do they still go to the correct department? Is the email listed dormant or active?

To be proactive, run an internal drill. Have employees play the role of information seekers and see how they rate the basics of your website. Test the phone numbers and emails. Have the real response teams answer questions and see how comfortable they are in crisis communications, as opposed to regular customer service.

Appoint a point-person to coordinate internally on information gathering with key personnel. Make sure you have a back-up person for each role. Use a spreadsheet to lay out these roles and responsibilities.

Once you implement these steps, you should feel prepared for the next crisis.

For more information, contact communications consultant Katharine Fraser.

How to Deliver Bad News with Good Communications

How does one maintain a positive message when a product is realigned or even ceases to exist? If a business line is unwinding, how does one gracefully support it while acknowledging its demise?

Sometimes a product line unwinds because it was associated with a celebrity whose star faded or imploded (see Nike Livestrong accessories). Or, a product line might get pulled in the face of stiff competition, in which case you may want to promote that you are clearing inventory. Even stating the sales will continue “while supplies last” could hasten the dwindling of the inventory. Granted, you want to say that in a tasteful manner and not evince any sense of desperation.

You can put a positive face on a fall.

You can put a positive face on a fall.

Be honest

Perhaps you believe you built a better mousetrap, and perhaps you really did, but too many competitors also had great mousetraps and maybe better marketing, distribution, pricing, cost basis, etc. Tell the customers how much you still back the product, but feel the time has come to let it go. Communicate the positive.

Put it out there

Gone are the days of a static memo. You need to put a face on your words. Here is where video can really help by serving multiple purposes in your crisis communications. The people who made the difficult decision should be on camera explaining how they arrived at this decision. Contrast that with just plain, cold words on paper or on a screen. The speakers’ faces and verbal tone will show empathy and regrets.

A second reason video helps is it is easily sharable on social media and your message will be quickly and readily disseminated to audiences you may not otherwise reach. Thirdly, this medium for storytelling really allows you to define yourself rather than allow other parties to describe you. It shows you have accountability. Fourthly, videos are memorable and will replay in people’s minds, further reinforcing your message.

Move fast on messaging

The news is going to come as a shock to some and bad news travels fast. You want customers to hear it from you first. Give the news to employees and then immediately roll the outside communications. Separate human resources discussions from external communications, but do give employees links to the press release and FAQ so if anyone asks them for information about the closing, then they can forward the proper information. Make it easier for the employees this way.

Disclose as much as possible. Vagueness and glaring omissions tend to invite speculation and rumors. Spare yourself as much aggravation as possible by disclosing the real reasons yourself.

Open a dialogue

Make it immediately clear that you are not pulling up stakes and leaving any customers in the lurch. Be sure to communicate contact information for questions and provide a frequently asked questions (FAQ) sheet with information on returns, redemptions, replacement parts, etc. Stand by the product and stand by its customers. Let them know the schedule for the product’s end or business closing.

Thank your customers for their business and support. If possible, recommend a competitor. After all, if you are exiting the market, suggesting an alternative is good customer service. Plus, if you are selling other products or expect to be in any other business, you want consumers to remember you in a positive light.

Delivering bad news is no fun, but if properly handled, you can hold your head up high.

For more information about business communications, contact consultant Katharine Fraser.