Tuesday, October 14, 2008, 1:19 PM

Ten rules for communicating in a crisis

The line of organizations delivering bad news recently has been a long one. The ripple effect from the financial market crisis continues to spread, affecting non-profits, real estate, hospitals, energy companies, governments, and much more. Having spent many years starting at the tip of the media's spear, we are often asked for our time-tested rules for communicating in a crisis. We have outlined them below for your consideration.

1. Tell the truth.
Warren Buffet said it best: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” The press and the public have an uncanny ability to uncover the truth in a crisis, so it better come from you. Deliberately spreading false information is the easiest way to damage—perhaps permanently—your company’s reputation with the press and the public.

2. Don’t just respond to crises—plan for them.
Forward-thinking companies identify their vulnerabilities ahead of time, anticipate challenges to their reputation, and plan accordingly. A strategic crisis planning exercise—one that identifies stakeholders, designates messengers, and outlines tactics in advance of a crisis—can be the single-most effective means for mitigating a crisis.

3. Define your audience.
Ask yourself whose opinion truly matters in a given crisis. Perhaps opinion leaders at major news organizations are your target audience. Maybe it's your customers. In other instances, it may be shareholders or small-town community leaders. Identify the audience that matters to you, and develop your communications plans around them.

4. Sharpen your message.
Few things are as ineffective as a rambling spokesperson or a long-winded press release. Before communicating publicly, develop a simple yet compelling message that speaks directly to your target audience and repeat it relentlessly.

5. Make news on your terms.
Far too many organizations go silent when a crisis hits. Doing so virtually guarantees your reputation will be defined by critics. When a crisis emerges that will test your reputation, respond quickly and decisively on your own terms.

6. Be sympathetic.
Organizations that appear poised and concerned about the public welfare generally succeed; those that appear impatient or indifferent to the concerns of the public generally do not.

7. Mind your own ranks.
Internal communications can be the difference when communicating in a crisis. Your employees represent your company at home and in the community. Keeping them informed during challenging times demonstrates leadership, maintains morale, and eliminates confusion and uncertainty.

8. Bring in reinforcements.
Getting beat up in the press? Help your cause by recruiting reputable, outside voices to defend your company. A public statement from a respected elected official, statesman, community leader, or even a local celebrity can help isolate your critics.

9. Don’t take it personally.
Reporters aren’t paid to give you good press or to be your friend. They are paid to ask tough questions and to be fair in their coverage. If you think a reporter’s coverage has been inaccurate or unfair, let that media outlet know. But don’t lose your composure - especially in public - just because they ask hard questions and report hard facts.

10. Know your ground rules.
Always assume your conversations with a reporter are on-the-record—whether in your office or by happenstance in public. There is a time and place for off-the-record discussions, but make sure you and the reporter are clear about what is fit for print.

Some of these rules may sound like common sense. Indeed, they are. But news of the past few months demonstrates that even the most accomplished executives can lose sight of common sense in the fog of crisis. The question is where your reputation will stand when the fog finally clears.

If you have questions about communicating in this challening economic environment, give us a call or send us an e-mail.

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