Top tips on best practise crisis communications

someone handing phone across
Sheena Ireland
Mon 13 Jan

With our nation gripped by bushfire crisis in multiple states and high alerts in others, crisis communication and leadership has been under the microscope.

Whether you agree or disagree with how the crisis has been handled at the federal, state and local levels, it pays to learn from what has occurred and to always be aware of how to best communicate in a crisis.

In any crisis, there will always be criticism. Being prepared for crisis can help you lead through it and come out as strong or even stronger than before.

Before I start, I want to note that in most situations, and in the situation we are facing as a nation, it can be said that everyone is doing their best. I truly believe that everyone is doing the best they can. We can also all do better if we take the time to understand what people generally need during a crisis.

We can do this by understanding who our stakeholders/audiences are in every crisis and looking at how they differ. Understanding our audiences can tell us how we communicate with them, what we need to communicate with them about and how often.

After understanding the audience, we can get clear on who our spokesperson/spokespeople need to be, and we can activate them to ensure communication occurs.

In a crisis, people want to hear from an authority, and they want to continue to hear from that/those authority/s. And they want to hear the truth. So, if there isn’t a lot of information at hand, or things are being investigated, let them know. Never try to hide the truth or fudge the facts – you want to gain and keep trust. Any white lie will generally be found out and it will impact how people trust you through the whole crisis (and assess your leadership post crisis).

Sugar coating the facts during a time of crisis is not what anyone wants. Generally speaking, no matter the audience, what the public want is communication with empathy and honesty.

When releasing statements, speaking to media, etc. speak with confidence, clarity and decisiveness. You may be shaking at the core; however, people need to know that you have their back. This doesn’t mean you can’t show emotion. Be real. Which can mean tears, or a moment to gather yourself. Showing empathy with others is important, so emotion is OK – as long as it is genuine. When it’s genuine, you can still hold an air of confidence. When it is played, it is seen as insensitive – so be sure to play to your authentic self, not a made-up persona.

While emotion is OK, defensiveness can come across badly. We often judge defensiveness as shady and so it is advised that you put others first and think about your language and demeanour. To capture this, take time to think about what you want and need to say. And when you are drafting your messages think about if the message is about you or others. In almost all situations, it should be about others. Can you see the difference between:

“I’m sorry for any offence I may have caused” and “I’m sorry my actions caused hurt and distress”?

People are much more willing to listen and give a second chance when actions are owned. They are inclined not to trust when those actions are not owned. While, I believe, not many people aim to offend, it does happen. Many authority figures who are interviewed during a crisis are interviewed on the run, sometimes having not had time to fully come to terms with information they have just been given; however, it is important to own our actions when we have offended, even if we didn’t intend to do so.

In the same vein, can you see the difference between:

“No, that’s not what we did” and “I’m sorry there is misinformation circulating. I understand people are hurt at this time and looking for answers, and this means some misinformation, like this, is circulating. What we do know is…. And we will continue to update you through <these trusted sources> to ensure you can get information as it comes to hand”.

When we look at crisis communication, it goes back to the fundamentals of effective communication—connection, empathy, understanding. And it places a great emphasis on clarity, consistency and certainty for the audience. With this, we build trust and we mobilise audience support.

Even if the message is ‘bad’, when delivered with honesty, it can be understood and trusted; and the crisis can be worked through.

When there is a whiff of a cover-up, through inconsistencies, half-truths and the like, the reputational damage can last decades and the crisis can be intensified even more.

Other tips for effective crisis communication include:

  • Surrounding yourself with experts and people who fill in your blind spots.
  • Have a clear communications procedure internally with your team so all messages ae consistent and factual.
  • Limiting your official communication channels so people become familiar with where they can get information from you.
  • Saying you don’t know when you don’t know instead of covering with spin or a lie. But also honestly endeavouring to find out the answer and staying true to that by coming back with the information when it comes to hand.
  • Be present—it shows confidence and certainty.
  • Be prepared. I recommend that every organisation/office practice a crisis situation annually so teams are clear on what will happen in a crisis. This only helps you be more effective and timely if/when a real crisis presents.