The 4 Rs of Crisis Communications

By Paul Gallagher, Rated PG

They say death and taxes are the two certainties in life.

Well, add two more to the list: 1) Donald Trump will tweet today, and 2) Your organisation will face a crisis that you didn’t plan for.

For death and taxes—Don’t dwell on the former, and pay up the latter.

For Trump tweets, try turning off notifications, or watch re-runs of The West Wing like it’s 1999!

As for communicating in a crisis, there is help, such as the smart thinking in Bernstein’s ‘The 10 Steps of Crisis Communications’.

Ten steps, unfortunately, can be a little tough to recall in the middle of a real or metaphorical flashing red light in your office.

Instead, I offer you my Four Rs of Crisis Comms to help you survive and thrive despite the bad news!

1) RECOGNISE the problem

For some, that’s the biggest hurdle—simply seeing and admitting the obvious: That you have a crisis, or an impending disaster. All too often, an organisation and its leadership think it better to downplay or minimise the scope of the problem. Better than that is simply admitting the dam is bursting with a wave of water on the way, rather than pointing to the still-dry concrete ground beneath your feet.

It can be as simple as saying ‘yes, there is a problem, but we’re going to need to look deeper to find out exactly what it is’. That’s fine; and honest.

2) RESEARCH quickly what has happened so you know how bad, and how big the problem is

It’s way too tempting to go to solution before you know the nature of an emergency or serious situation. The better and smarter path is to calmly assess it. That assessment is best done by the specialists, not the leadership. Instead, leaders need to appoint and resource, not dictate the research.

Most importantly, get the research done quickly. If you’re a specialist engaged in the task, you already know that. But for a leader, it’s your job to keep an eye on how the research is resourced. Be ready with the additional money and people to get the answers quickly.

Don’t throw a resource that the research team does not want. Anticipate and cooperate with the needs of the specialists.

Once the research is complete, keep in mind your community and stakeholders will want to hear about it, or see it themselves. Don’t hold back unnecessarily. And keep it flowing to your community and stakeholders with transparency and frequency.

3) RESPOND as you proceed

Don’t wait for the research component to finish before you first communicate. Start responding with what you know when you know it, informing your community and stakeholders at each available opportunity.

Think of it like a firefighter would—they start fighting the fire from the moment it’s identified. But in the background, someone is getting a bird’s eye view of where the fire has come from and where it is going. And someone else is checking the environmental conditions to feed all this information into the leadership’s deeper response. In effect, more than one thing is happening to deal with the emergency, not just a person at the frontline.

So respond initially. Respond again as you know a little more. Respond again as you adapt to the research and information you’re receiving. And respond with the final solution when it’s clear and to hand.

4) Finally, REPEAT!

Every step in communicating through a crisis will require repetition. You will need to recognise the problem more than once, knowing not everyone has heard your first statements. You will need to explain the cause in different ways, probably often. That’s because not everyone hears everything you say, and may be coming at the problem late or from a different perspective.

And, if it’s your fault, you will need to say sorry, genuinely, more than once. An apology for something you caused won’t work as a glib, brief few words under your breath.

Once it’s all over, the bad news is… there’ll be another crisis down the road. The good news is… you’ll do an even better job handling the comms.