Lessons in crisis communication

Lessons in crisis communication

Corporate communications director discusses best ways to prevent and manage through a company crisis.

A CRISIS is any out-of-the-ordinary event that can damage your reputation and put your business at risk, and the time you spend on plans and preparation is going to affect how long your crisis will last and how deep the damage will be, Lani Jordan, director of corporate communications for CHS Inc., recently told an audience at the 2014 Grain Elevator & Processing Society's Exchange in Omaha, Neb.

Whether it is an employee issue, an emergency situation or a reputation issue, Jordan offered the audience ways to get through an unhappy situation with a reputation still intact. She shared lessons she has learned during her 20 years working for CHS's crisis communication division.

First, she said the best way to deal with a crisis is to not have one.

"You may not love the people from (the Occupational Safety & Health Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency), but the rules are the rules," she said. "If you follow them, that's going to be one step in the right direction for crisis preparation.

"Think about the worst thing that could happen, and multiply it by 10," she suggested. "Then, do everything you can do to create a plan to prevent it."

According to Jordan, one kind of crisis is the do-it-yourself crisis. This happens when companies fail to think about a communication plan, underestimate how people may react and let someone else break the news.

"If someone breaks your news, it is really hard to catch up," she said.

Then, there is the sin of omission, which is when someone says, "I didn't think anyone needed to know. If they found out, I was pretty sure everyone would understand."

This is the wrong approach. "You have to include communication in your plan," Jordan said. Be ready to communicate immediately, and avoid "analysis paralysis." Have a statement ready within an hour.

"Don't sit around wondering what you are going to do," she said. "Know your process. Know your resources. Determine who your spokesperson is."

The keys for reacting to a crisis are to "act quickly to create a response, show empathy, demonstrate action and avoid speculation," she explained

Poor communication can make a crisis worse. For example, in the case of the BP oil spill a few years ago, there were a lot of players involved, and they all spent a lot of time pointing fingers at each other.

"Watch what you say and when you say it," Jordan said.

She explained something she refers to as the "fog of war," which happens when people get tired during a crisis and say the wrong things, so it's important to let spokespeople take breaks. She recommended designating a few different individuals.

Picking the right spokesperson or spokespeople is something companies can think about and do in advance. According to Jordan, executives aren't always the right people for that role; however, depending on the level of crisis, it may be necessary to use an executive.

She recommended that the spokesperson have notes written down and practice saying them in private. She emphasized the necessity of showing compassion and that the company cares. Additionally, she said to stay calm, remain professional and be respectful to the media.

"It's about people and the environment, even if your facility is burning to the ground," she said.

She added that it's okay to say, "I don't know, but I'll get back to you when I do" — as long as you do it.


The new media

Jordan noted that companies cannot hide the past.

"People can find anything on the internet or search government records," she said.

The media is everywhere, and everyone is the media, she explained. Smartphones have made everyone a reporter, and social media has changed the way events are reported. Expect that your news is already out there, Jordan emphasized.

"It's a 24/7 news cycle now," she explained. "Breaking news can be unfiltered, speculative and just plain wrong, but there's not much you can do about it."

The goal, according to Jordan, is to provide context and assurance that you are dealing with the issue.

"When it comes to social media, your customers and employees who believe in you can be your strongest allies, especially during a crisis," she said.

In regards to social media, she said it's important to respond in the forum where the issue was raised.

"If someone is tweeting about you, you need to respond via Twitter," Jordan said.

She called social media the new town square and stressed the need to take people seriously when, for example, they say they are going to start a hate group on Facebook.

Concern, compassion and ownership were Jordan's key recommendations for crisis communication, but she concluded by explaining that sharing good news is also part of an effective communication plan.

"You don't want to be on someone's radar just because something bad happened," she said.

Volume:86 Issue:11

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