Tom Faust
Tom Faust

What does success in a crisis look like for brands? If a recent survey is any indication, a consensus among PR pros may prove elusive.

The survey, conducted by PR News and Dataminr, found fairly divergent views on how to define success in a crisis. 

Thirty four percent of nearly 160 respondents said success in a crisis means responding immediately to the breach and another 34 percent said “adjusting the external brand narrative,” the survey said. Sixteen percent said “beating the news media to a story.”

The issue with these responses is that that crisis communications success starts well before a crisis happens. Preparation and thoughtful processes that have an organization ready to respond are what matter most. The rest is execution. 

Below are a few steps that should be resolved in advance of any crisis.

  • Roles and Responsibilities.It’s great to have all hands on deck when a crisis occurs. But with coordination and clarity, a large team can do more harm than good. Assigning default roles to team members so people know what they are tasked with in the first hours and days following a crisis enables quicker action and avoids confusion.
  • Media Monitoring.It may sound pedestrian, but having real-time information on what is being said in the media—and on social media—is critical for an effective response.
  • Spokesperson Matrix. There are many potential spokespeople in most organizations. Having a clear view of how and when each of them will be deployed is required. This may not be as clear-cut as you would think. Spokespeople might be organized by geography, subject matter or proficiency in speaking with media, as well as by title.
  • Scenario Planning.Finally, and perhaps most important is thinking through potential crises before they happen. While it’s impossible to plan for every contingency, quality organizations know their business risks and can plan for them at a high level. Product recall, worker injuries, financial malfeasance and unexpected executive departures are just a few examples of crisis categories for which you can build a communications framework that will make things easier when they actually occur.

Early tactical preparation is very important, but there is an even bigger determinant of crisis communications success: Trust.

By definition, a crisis is a time of high stress. Team members must work seamlessly to project a cohesive and confident image amidst chaotic circumstances. When trust breaks down, a manageable crisis can quickly get out of control as information isn’t shared and team members end up working at cross purposes and delivering mixed messages.

The trust breakdown is most likely to happen between organization and outside agency. Even if there is a long relationship, it can be a natural reaction to pull inward instead of reaching out for help. Inter-personal relationships, financial data and personal embarrassment can further complicate things if the organization or individuals try to hide the “dirty laundry” or withhold details.

It’s easy to see how a lack of trust can doom a crisis response.

There’s no silver bullet regarding precisely how long a company should wait to respond to a crisis or who is best suited to serve as spokesperson. But with trust as the fulcrum for the agency-client relationship, organizations can respond more quickly and prevent the hole they’re in from getting any deeper.

So, before the crisis, and before the advance planning, organizations need to ask themselves: Do I trust my agency to be the strong partner I need when the chips are down? If not, it’s time to bring on a new communications partner.

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Tom Faust is managing director for Stanton, a communications firm with offices in New York and California. He can be reached at tfaust@stantonprm.com.