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How to Communicate Effectively During a Crisis While you hope to never experience a crisis situation in your business, here's how to be prepared.

By Jill Schiefelbein

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The following excerpt is from Jill Schiefelbein's book Dynamic Communication. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

While you hope to never experience a crisis situation in your business, it's important to be prepared. And while managing a crisis isn't simple, there are some key elements that every business owner needs to understand when forming and communicating a response. If your business experiences a crisis, here are some tips that can help you craft a response.

Related: Getting the Right Press Coverage for Your Business

First moves

With the immediacy of social media and the ability of your consumers, employees and bystanders to upload and distribute information at the tap of a screen, you need to respond right away. As soon as you know something's wrong, be as proactive as possible. It's much better for you and your business if you break the news, rather than someone else letting it slip via social media, which is then picked up by the larger media.

Also, be aware that everything -- and I mean everything -- that precedes and follows is available for public consumption. Every channel your brand/business is on is a channel that customers and the public can use to reach you to judge and complain and applaud your actions or inactions. Every tweet you've been mentioned in before, during, and after the crisis unfolds will be scrutinized, along with every snap that gets chatted and every gram that gets posted. And all along, of course, there's livestreaming capturing it in real time.

This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, every mistake you make is magnified. On the other, everything you do well has the potential to make it into the public sphere. When you're thinking of your immediate response, keep in mind that facts are incredibly important.

Response strategy

If the crisis is a result of a natural disaster, state of emergency or other unforeseen catastrophic event, your initial response statement should include a clear explanation of what your company is doing to manage operations, keep customers safe (both physically and digitally in terms of data) and the expected path to recovery. In these situations, likely your company had and has no control over the event itself, but that doesn't dissipate the frustrations of customers in the moment, and them publicly airing these frustrations.

If the crisis is a result of human error within your organization, this is when you likely have the most to lose. Owning responsibility is almost always the way to go here. An immediate gut response is to create a scapegoat. I urge you to reconsider that strategy. Even if the crisis is a result of one person's actions, the system that allowed the actions to occur and the system that hired that person in the first place, will come under scrutiny. Just as sound doesn't occur in a vacuum, neither does human error occur in isolation.

Related: How to Improve Your Networking Skills

If you've identified the person or persons responsible and have decided to place blame early on, then state the facts up front and in detail. Attributing blame directly is a big leap, so be sure you're ready to take it. And then be prepared to handle the fallout on a systemic level -- how the employee was hired in the first place, what conditions must have existed to allow the person to make the error, what the organization could have done to prevent the situation. Owning up to the facts and stating your plans to examine how the crisis occurred is important. If you're caught in a lie, or even in a slightly stretched truth, the world will eventually find out and you will suffer the consequences.

For any crisis situation, here is a sample outline for a response. Use this as a starting point to craft your crisis communication and message response strategy. This needs to be communicated internally as well -- during times of crisis it's not just the public that is affected; your employees are, too. Your response needs to demonstrate that you've humanized the experience as much as possible -- meaning that you care about more than the bottom line and how the situation is impacting it.

Step one: accept responsibility

Take responsibility and apologize to all involved. State the most pertinent facts at the outset.

Step two: address the needs

Alleviate any immediate questions or what's on the top of people's minds.

Step three: sympathize and empathize

Share genuine empathy and connection -- demonstrate you know what's at stake.

Step four: report the solution

State what you're doing as an ongoing effort to right the wrong or fix the problem.

Step five: apologize, again

Apologize again to all involved. Thank parties as appropriate.

Ongoing situation maintenance

As a crisis unfolds, and even as it draws to an end, continual updating and monitoring all communication channels is key. Even if there's nothing new to report, err on the side of caution and post frequent updates. The last thing you want is to have information buried when customers and employees are looking for immediate answers.

Make it easy for people to find relevant information. "Pin" a post at the top of your social media feeds so users don't have to scroll for information. Create a pop-up that loads immediately on your website highlighting the important details and paths of action. Put a temporary header on your website alerting people to the situation and what can be done to meet their needs. Communicate response times and expectations as clearly as possible.

Related: 6 Strategies for Being a Better Listener

Update on facts. What you know. What you're doing. Always apologize to your multiple audiences, and mean it. Not just in a "sorry you're inconvenienced" way, but in a way that lets your customers know that you really understand the situation they're in and the frustration they're experiencing.

Remember, communication is more than words. Delivery of those words is important, too. When it comes to a crisis, it's not just what you say or how you say it -- it's the combination of what you say, how you say it and the actions that follow that will determine how the image of the business is remembered and restored.

Jill Schiefelbein

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Professional Speaker and Business Communication Expert

Jill Schiefelbein is a former professor, professional speaker, and business communication expert. From analyzing documents obtained from military raids of terrorist camps to dissect jihadi communication strategies, building an online education office serving more than 60,000 students, to her own award-winning entrepreneurial ventures, Schiefelbein loves a strategic challenge. Her business, The Dynamic Communicator, creates and executes communication strategies that help companies solve problems, retain talent and produce revenue. Pre-order her new book Dynamic Communication (Entrepreneur Press, March 2017) today.

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