Bad things happen. Let’s begin by agreeing that no organization, regardless of size or the nature of their work, can avoid every potential crisis. That remains entirely out of our control. What we can control, however, is the manner in which we respond as part of crisis management. We as public relations professionals can choose to take a proactive crisis communication stance where we essentially get in front of the issue and become the first to shape the narrative. Alternatively, we can take a reactive crisis communications stance where we address the issue quietly and prepare in case someone asks the question. 

Both proactive and reactive crisis communication approaches have their place just like both of them involve significant planning. The one thing no organization should do is wait until a crisis gets completely out of control before making their game plan. That is where organizations fail, leaders lose their jobs and companies collapse. With that in mind, we’ll explore the nature of crisis communication, the differences between proactive and reactive crisis communication plans and their role in reputation management.

What is Crisis Communications?

Crises vary in nature and scale, but can still pose risks to your organization regardless of size. Maybe an employee made a… let’s say “less than wise” choice on social media or a CEO suddenly passed away. Perhaps a vital warehouse just burned down or your CIO just dropped the bomb that you’ve been hacked. Regardless of the crisis, this is the point where public relations and the leadership team come together to form a crisis communications plan that clearly outlines:

  • The nature of the crisis.
  • The level of risk or exposure
  • Primary audiences for communication (which may not always be the media).
  • Who the decision makers will be (rarely should everyone be in the room).
  • The communications strategy going forward.
  • Who the spokesperson will be.

While only one small part of corporate crisis management, crisis communication is fundamental to any successful response. And to be fair, I have often been in that room where everyone was scared that a crisis would ravage an organization and I had to be the person to politely inform them that no one outside of that room would care. Crisis communications isn’t simply a plan for media statements and press conferences. It is a process and regardless of the process, each crisis, no matter how small, requires an appropriate level of planning and response.

The Proactive Crisis Communications Plan

In some cases, a crisis is simply too big to avoid and requires a head on approach. This is the proactive crisis communications plan. For example, in my past life as a reporter I attended a local police press conference with an unknown topic. The police chief walked out and gave a detailed account of inappropriate officer conduct within the department, outlined their steps to address it and took questions. No reporter in the room had a clue that was coming, but by taking a proactive approach, the police chief shaped the narrative from the beginning. The last thing they wanted was someone finding out on their own and suggesting the department tried to cover it up. They chose transparency and forthrightness.

While a proactive crisis communication plan sometimes runs the risk of making mountains out of mole hills, it can also preserve an organization’s integrity while diffusing any ticking timebombs of a story later down the road. Remember that proactive crisis communications may not even involve contacting the media. Maybe you discovered inappropriate conduct within the office and instead of letting the rumor mill get out of control, you choose to send an office wide notification or hold a meeting to discuss the issue openly and re-enforce rules or expectations of office behavior. Your plan should still involve contingencies, though. For example, any company-wide email should be written with the expectation that someone outside the company will see it. That needs to be part of the crisis communications planning process.

The Reactive Crisis Communications Plan

You would think that a reactive crisis communications plan would be the opposite of a proactive plan, but not so much. While an organization may on some level hope that no one ever asks the question that calls upon them to react and discuss an issue, in reality the planning process requires that they prepare for every contingency just like they would for a proactive plan. That means ensuring that you make all the key decisions, write the statements and prepare the spokesperson BEFORE someone asks the question.

If you wait until someone asks the question to start preparing your response to a crisis that you already know about, you have failed in your responsibilities to the organization. The larger an organization the longer it may take to agree on a crisis communications plan, but the evening news or the morning paper have their own deadlines and the worst possible scenario is for them to say your organization was unable to manage a response in time for the story. Of course there are exceptions, but a reactive crisis communications plan means that you do all of the work on the front end with the clear expectations that someone WILL ask the question so that when they do, you can respond quickly and clearly. 

Crisis Communication and Reputation Management

Whether you choose a proactive or reactive crisis communications plan, the ability of your organization to respond in a timely and professional manner is the first and most important step you can take in the reputation management process. Remember, we cannot always avoid the crisis, but we can control how we respond. That ability to respond and face a crisis sets the tone for every news story, boardroom conversation and social media post about your company. Even if we bring the crisis upon ourselves, everyone makes mistakes. More often than not, though, we are judged on how we address and correct those mistakes in the long run.

For more insight on how executives can manage the message during a crisis situation, both internally and externally, be sure to read Ghidotti President and CEO Natalie Ghidotti’s column in Arkansas Business. Or if you realize you are unprepared for the next crisis down the road, get in touch and build the foundation for your crisis communications plan.