3 Levels of Crisis… and How to Handle Them

Guest post by former BBC news anchor and media trainer Andrew Harvey.

This is a guest post by Andrew Harvey, ex-BBC News anchor, now partner and media trainer at HarveyLeach.

A PR crisis can be your worst nightmare or your chance to shine. To ensure that you and your organization weather the storm and come out fighting, it’s vital to respond in exactly the right way.

But the “right way” can depend on what kind of crisis it is.

There are different and specific responses suited to handling each type of crisis, but they also have certain things in common. Here we take a look at three levels of crisis, from a major disaster to a personal slip-up, and how best to handle them.

1. Major disaster

A major disaster affecting your organization is big news. It may be outside your control, such as a natural disaster affecting one of your plants, or it could be death or injury caused by one of your products. Either way, the media will want to speak to you.

It’s a frightening time for your organization, but the most effective crisis response is simple–it must be quick and it must be open.

Regardless of how much information you have, as soon as the story has broken you must get out there and respond. If you keep quiet while others are talking about the story, the assumption will be that you don’t care or you have something to hide.

Being open and honest will show that you truly understand the scale of the problem, that the victims are your first priority and that you are trying to put things right. Do not, under any circumstances, try to “spin” things in a positive light. It will backfire.

Ultimately, you need to show that you understand how serious the problem is and that you are doing everything you can to fix it.

Crisis two2. Poor company performance

When your company performs badly, it may mean falling profits, firing staff, closing stores or withdrawing products. Whatever the case, the media will be interested.

Again, it’s absolutely vital to be open and honest.

If your employees and customers are being affected by your company’s performance, you must address this first. Talk about it in plain language, not management jargon like “headcount reductions.”

Show that you genuinely understand the problem and take full responsibility for its human consequences.

By doing this first, you are effectively dealing with all the negative questions the media may ask. Once you’ve done this, you are only then in a position to start speaking in positive terms.

Talk about the steps you are taking to improve the situation and to stop it from happening again. Show that you have learned from what went wrong and that you will now focus on making things better for your company, your employees and your customers.

3. Personal error

Perhaps you have made a big mistake or you are having to take the blame for your department’s failure. Either way, it is incredibly stressful when the media’s attention is on you personally.

When this happens, your instinct may be to deny the problem or to blame someone else–whatever it takes to get the focus off you.

Neither action will work. The more you try to run or hide, the more the media will push you. What began as a genuine mistake could escalate into a situation where you’re portrayed as a corporate villain–someone who can’t be trusted and won’t take responsibility for their own actions.

As always, the right approach is honesty. Before you do anything else, own up to what has happened and don’t try to downplay it. If you don’t take it seriously enough, then you can be sure the media will…and you will look like the bad guy.

Then, say sorry. We’re all human, and you’ll be forgiven far more quickly if you show your human side.

Finally, promise to put things right. If you’ve been honest from the beginning, people are more likely to believe you’ll do what you say.

What to remember in any crisis situation

Here are two key things to remember in any crisis situation.

  • First, take a step back from your organization and see things as your audience sees them. This will ensure that your first response is appropriate, as you will be thinking like a human being rather than a corporation. Your priority here is to earn the trust of your audience on a personal level.
  • Second, take control. Decide what you are going to do to fix the problem, and communicate your plan clearly and calmly.