Crisis Communications for Small Business

Crisis communications are like housefires–most of us will thankfully never experience this firsthand. But for those who do, it is a terrifying experience that can have ruinous consequences.

If you’re like most small business owners, you’ve not gone through anything like this before, and you probably haven’t given the possibility much thought.

But we are living in strange times, and you must prepare yourself for every conceivable scenario … and those that you haven’t even previously imagined.

Media planning is one of the core courses of the Marketing Idea Exchange platform. Our members have completed the training with their teams. They’ve gone through all of the steps of getting prepared, used our tools and templates and recommended approach to create a media plan that’s shared with their team, and now they’re able to focus on telling their story in the marketplace without worry, knowing that in the unlikely event of a communications crisis, they’ll be prepared. Not only that, they’ve followed one of our most important pieces of advice—sharing the plan that you create with someone else who, if needed, can serve as a sounding board if you find yourself in the dizzying situation of facing down a crisis while trying to communicate with your customers, community, stakeholders, and perhaps even the media.

But for you, the situation might be different.

So today, I’m going to share with you three of the most important things that you need to consider in the unlikely but potentially ruinous instance that you have a communications crisis:

Before you begin, though, note that whenever you find yourself facing a crisis, you need to take a beat and give yourself a moment to collect yourself. Emergencies are, by their very definition, a very emotional situation. You will likely be unable to think clearly. Focus on just these three things:

First: Stop all of the communications that you had in place and get ahead of the shift in message. Some businesses schedule posts or other communications. It’s important that you stop that and immediately put someone in control of your communications who is going to be able to navigate this situation in a way that isn’t based on emotion or firefighting but rather finding the way to the other side of the crisis. So that’s why you need to have a plan to pull back any employees who have logins or access to your social media channels and draw all of these tactics really close. I’ve seen it more than once when a well-meaning but untrained employee tries to respond to negative comments or internet trolls and gets pulled down a rabbit hole that only worsens things.

Second: Issue a hold statement. And nothing more. A hold statement is a lot like what it sounds like it is–it’s a statement that acknowledges what’s going on but doesn’t attempt to explain, apologize, blame, or otherwise provide any details. You merely state the facts of the situation, being truthful but brief. Remember, there’s a difference between truthfulness and full disclosure. Once you’ve done that, be quite. The only thing that you should do with comments at that point is to hide the negative ones. Because now you need to take the third step.

Third: Lean in to your customers and stakeholders. You’re probably accustomed to aiming your marketing and communications to a wide audience and casting a broad net with your broadcasts and posts. Now, you have to shift your thinking. Now, you must focus only on the customers and stakeholders who are going to be concerned for you and frankly concerned for themselves. It would be easy to get distracted by the messages, questions, and negativity that might come at you. Don’t lose your focus–your employees, customers, and stakeholders are where you need to aim your full attention. The DMs and comments can wait.

Finally, if you find yourself in the company of the media, then just remember a couple of key steps. First, teach your team one simple phrase: “I am not authorized to speak on behalf of my employer” that’s it. That’s all they’re allowed to say. Let them know who is authorized to speak on behalf of your brand and remind them of this phrase. If a reporter asks them seven questions, then they’ll say it seven times.

When talking to the media, it’s important to remember to answer the questions that you’ve prepared for. Think like a politician. They never answer the questions they’re asked, they simply shift the dialogue back to the talking points that they’ve prepared.

Next, use what I call a ‘bridge’ method. There are two sentences that you use when talking to the media, and the bridge between them is a phrase that I use a lot.

So let’s unpack this: The first sentence, when you’re answering a question on camera, the first sentence out of your mouth is a simple restating of the question as an acknowledgment of the fact that you’re listening. This lets the reporter know you’re dialed in and want to help. And the second or last sentence is a statement that’s in the same topic as what they’re asking about. It’s your prepared talking point. It’s a positive thing about your story.

But importantly, between that first and last sentence is the bridge … say this “what I can tell you is”.

So it looks like this. The reporter asks, “Miss Stevens, is it true that your bakery puts poison in the cupcakes?”

Your response is “I understand the public’s concern about the safety of the food they eat. What I can tell you is that we only include the freshest ingredients sourced from the world’s best suppliers.”

This takes some practice, so maybe prepare yourself a bit by rehearsing and following that pattern: a first sentence that acknowledges your hearing and participating in the conversation. Then “what I can tell you is”—followed by a talking point.

In this way, you never have to say “No comment” or try to defend yourself on your feet, which always puts you in a weak position.

Listen, we live in treacherous times. Building buzz is pretty simple but building a brand is no easy thing. You and your business deserve better than a make-it-up-as-you-go approach to marketing. That’s why, of course, I’d love to invite you to become a member of MIX.

In the meantime, of course, I would encourage you to be good to yourself. Tell yourself, “I am doing the best that I can.” and then work to fulfill that promise.

I hope that you find these tips helpful, and I’d love to hear from you — what are some of your best insights for navigating a communications crisis? Please weigh in in the comments section below!

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