We know, it's already hard to remember a time before breaking news alerts, phone notifications, advisories, warnings, and precautionary steps. There are many lessons to be learned from today's ever-changing environment, but the good news is that the major lessons are always applicable.
What makes crisis communication particularly difficult is that no two situations are the same; nor are any two audiences, even if the same people. That is because the when they are communicated with differs and prior information (or lack thereof) colors interpretation at the time.
In today's social media world, most put an emphasis on speed. These advocates put the emphasis on an old PR saw that says, “if you don't tell your story, someone else will.” Timeliness is important, but the critical judgement is about determining the tipping point. Remember that potential misinformation for the sake of speed can be destructive, stoking fear or false confidence.
In crises that will play out over time, getting the right information and making expertise available to correct misinformation may be more valuable than speed. But again, this is a judgement. No one will know for sure if it was the correct decision until after the fact.
We once worked with someone who had to communicate a massive recall in the United States. They were quick to announce the recall but then focused on diligently tracking down all shipments that needed to be intercepted while developing information for the public that was highly credible and deliverable by trusted third parties like the CDC. The result was some silence after the initial statement, and there was inevitably pressure from internal and external sources, but the communication team stayed the course.
On day 2 of their recall, when they made their next official statement, they were able to explain to the public that they had obtained control of 97% of the product at risk, and included instructions for remaining product in the hands of consumers. You may not remember this particular recall because it was such a non-event - on and off the news quickly, and without lasting negative press impact to the company.
The key is fast mobilization, but not always fast communication if it is incomplete or unreliable.
The consistency of expert spokespeople means a lot. They can better control the narrative and connect the dots from one day to the next. Using experts with extensive relevant backgrounds and deep knowledge are key.
Credibility is also built when someone responds “we don't know at this time” instead of speculating, getting ahead of the intended message, or responding with a non-answer. The honesty is refreshing, and if the expert doesn't know, we are forewarned not to believe the potentially sensationalist media about the subject. It's even better when the expert responders can show responsiveness by bringing back the answer in future days, although that's not always an option.
To be sure, most of us coping with a crisis will not have the White House briefing room as our platform to garner attention. Most of us will be working in smaller situations with smaller scope.
The advice is still the same regardless: be timely, but don't get ahead of yourself. Track risk and be as pro-active as you can to deepen understanding/address issues in between public updates. Don't over-answer. Allow your spokesperson to be a voice of consistency.
These lessons are timeless and apply to any crisis communication, internal or external, personal or professional. But how to filter that information when you're on the receiving end? Well that's an article for another day.