Mission Critical

Crisis response improves when PR and crisis management teams partner

Partnership in teams is important.

Communications plays a key role in crisis. However, PR professionals aren’t the only ones on the team. During large-scale disasters, we often work side-by-side with crisis management experts who handle the support call centers and on-the-ground response for those affected. The way these two roles—communications and crisis response—interact and work together is a determining factor in successfully managing a crisis. 

Preparedness

It’s essential for both communications and crisis management to have a seat at the planning table. Each brings invaluable insights in three areas:

Assessment and Planning: The Value of a Matrix

One of the most helpful assessment tools is a crisis matrix, which organizes potential crises according to their 1) likelihood and 2) potential damage. No one can create a crisis plan to deal with every eventuality. The matrix helps you focus on the most-likely, most-damaging scenarios, and allocate resources accordingly.

Drills and Exercises: Don’t Get Rusty

Many institutions put a plan on paper, but never actually practice it. Savvy PR practitioners develop “Crisis Toolkit” templates in advance, which might include a corporate statement or news release, internal and external talking points, Q&As and phone protocols for employees.

Crisis management experts, meanwhile, guide the company in drills and mock scenarios that help clarify roles and responsibilities. We often compare this to fire drills — you want to become familiar with what to do when there is no fire, so you can respond via muscle memory if a fire occurs.

Evaluating Resources: Balancing Internal Expertise with Outside Perspectives

You also can help your colleagues make realistic assessments about whether to engage outside resources during a crisis. In the wake of 9/11, businesses built up their crisis management and business continuity departments. However, since then, those departments have shrunk to only one or two people—not enough to handle a potentially large-scale disaster. Ideally, companies and campuses should examine their internal support options, and then determine how to outsource appropriately for either communications, crisis management or both.

When evaluating resources, remember that internal employees will likely not be operating at 100 percent in the face of a company-wide disaster. Engaging an outside firm can help maintain calm and perspective. We saw the importance of this in the face of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

Amid Crisis

Developing the Message

Most people want three things from communications professionals during a crisis: 1) Acknowledgement of what’s happened, 2) An explanation of what’s being done to address the situation, and 3) A means to provide feedback and ask questions.

Messaging is a great example of why PR and crisis management must work together. Understanding your audience is essential, and a strong partnership with crisis management people can give you a deeper glimpse into audience perceptions, attitudes and behaviors at that precise moment.

Through their call center or face-to-face interactions, crisis response teams can offer insights about how to match message tone with what audiences are going through emotionally. While PR is responsible for creating the messages, counselors and crisis responders also use that messaging on the phone or on the ground.

Getting the Message Out

So, you’ve developed fantastic messages, but how do you get them out? And how do you handle the influx of questions that’s sure to follow?

Most in-house PR or crisis departments aren’t staffed to handle large call volumes. This is where an outside crisis management firm can bring huge advantages through experience and capacity.

It’s important to ask who’s going to be the best at delivering a message. Typically, PR people are in the best position to communicate with the media, industry regulators and other internal or external stakeholders, while crisis management teams are better suited to communicate directly with the employees and families involved. Crisis response counselors are trained in how to deliver bad news to families and how to deal with the reaction. That expertise takes the burden off the company.

Dealing with the Aftermath

Sometimes PR professionals make the mistake of thinking their job is done once the crisis has been communicated, but it’s a smart idea to sit down, re-evaluate how the plan worked—or didn’t—and identify the next shoe drops or communication opportunities.

Engaging crisis management also is a good way to ensure that the support doesn’t disappear a few days after the event. Crisis call centers often remain active for months or years following a disaster. For example, more than a decade later, our partner, FEI Behavioral Health, still manages the crisis line for families affected by 9/11. Though the crisis itself is over, it’s not over for those involved.

Together, communications experts and crisis management professionals can talk people through the worst, connect them with support resources, and help them bounce back more quickly.

FEI Behavioral Health has a 35-year history in enhancing workforce resiliency by offering a full spectrum of solutions, from workplace violence prevention and crisis management to EAP and organizational development. FEI is the nationally known crisis management organization that handles the Sept. 11 call center, as well as crisis preparation for several government agencies. FEI responds to a wide variety of crises, whether it’s a workplace death, plane crash, building damage or a large-scale natural disaster.

For more than 20 years, Bottom Line Marketing and Public Relations has partnered with its clients to provide media relations, strategic planning, government relations, branding, and social media campaigns to create awareness among their target audiences. We have effectively managed communications on behalf of clients during dozens of crises.

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