When is a crisis a crisis?

Every organization needs to protect its reputation.  And when something occurs to jeopardize that reputation, the crisis communications experts go into action.

But how do you know when a crisis is a real crisis?  How do you know that trying to alleviate a crisis won’t just make matters worse by calling attention to it?

These are good questions.  When you know something is about to happen, like a lawsuit, consumer complaint, or viral video, the immediate reaction is to stop it in its tracks.  That is often a good strategy, but not necessarily the right one.

There are several issues to consider.  First, the crisis you think will happen often never materializes.  We tend to project the worst, but sometimes our fears get the better of us.

Second, we sometimes react prematurely.  The first step when addressing a crisis communications situation is to be certain of the facts.  One of the worst things you can do is respond to the unknown.  But it can be tricky.  If the media are all over you, then you want to appear to care and assure everybody that you are handling the situation.  But how can you handle a situation you are uncertain of?

While the first step is to address the crisis, the step before that is to assemble your crisis communications team.  The team should consist of the head of the organization, PR counsel, legal counsel and person(s) closest to the issue.  It is important that this team have a mechanism in place to contact one another quickly and easily.  When a serious crisis occurs, every minute counts.  You don’t want to have to scramble to find each other.

Then, make sure of the facts.  Who is impacted, who is responsible, what happened, how are you fixing it and so forth.  These are basic questions that need to be addressed as soon as possible.

The worst thing you can do is wait if the media are on top of it.  Staying silent gives the impression of not caring and hiding.  You don’t want to initiate contact with the media if they are not on the story, but if they are, then you need to respond with sensitivity, professionalism and solutions.

Remember what a wise person once said.  “It takes decades to build a positive reputation and seconds to destroy it.”  In this world of instant communication, where information travels the globe in seconds, speed is important.  If others are talking about your organization negatively, and you are not in the conversation, something is terribly wrong.

That’s why having professional crisis communications experts — people who have been through crises many times — is so critical.  Every crisis is different, but having someone who knows how to navigate the media and provide expert advice can mean the different between successfully handling a crisis, or paying dearly.