In college courses, crisis communication is wrapped up in a pretty bow with theories, charts, and basic steps to follow. When you experience a crisis with your company for the first time, that bow can feel like a big knot. No matter your industry, company size, location, or track record with the media, having a crisis communication plan in your back pocket is vitally important—and this year proved it.
It simply takes time for public relations professionals to experience the variety of crises so we understand how to best advise clients. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of time this year. The COVID-19 pandemic, plus calls for racial equity, have been the epitome of “learning on the job,” and college graduates to seasoned pros have definitely learned a lot.
Flexibility is key.
Traditionally, a PR crisis falls into a few categories: employee misconduct, mismanagement of funds, negative on-the-record comments, or a number of other cringeworthy missteps. But COVID-19 ushered in a crisis that no one in this generation had yet experienced. While PR leaders did predict a higher demand for crisis communication because of calls to address accountability around diversity and inclusion, more transparency, and other challenges, I don’t think what we’re facing today is exactly what they had in mind.
Because the plans PR professionals created were built on challenges we could predict, nearly all required adjustments to address COVID-related issues. For example, we had to prepare organization spokespeople for Zoom television appearances, and we had almost daily calls with our healthcare clients to monitor the ever-changing guidelines in the first few months of the pandemic.
However, a strong crisis communication plan should be flexible enough that the bones could apply to any situation. Your plan should’ve proved useful as long as it included: developing a core response team, internal and external communications, and frequent evaluations. If you had to wipe the dust from your plan, or didn’t have one at all, then take all your experiences this year and funnel them into an official crisis communications plan for your company. Your future self will thank you later.
Use your inside voices.
Typically, the biggest component of a crisis communication plan is what will be said and done externally in order to address the issue and insulate the company from inevitable feedback. But COVID-19 and the social justice movement forced the focus to be on the internal communications piece.
The ever-changing nature of the pandemic and social justice movement required consistent communication to audiences on how a company planned to keep employees safe, what the expectations for remote work were, how leadership teams would support employees, what racial equity actions would be taken, and so much more.
We continue to see a high public demand for companies, especially those deemed essential, to be transparent about the concerns that companies needed to start addressing months ago. This means it’s imperative for PR pros to be consistently well informed of their company’s plans. In terms of social justice, some are doing better than others (link may require login).
For some PR pros, this may have been the first time you were consulted on developing internal communications practices. Especially with a microscope on companies’ diversity and inclusion practices, I predict the demand for transparency will not go away. Be prepared for more of these discussions throughout your career.
Stake your claim.
In the early months of the pandemic, I sat through countless webinars where communicators shared that this was the first time they really felt heard by their companies or clients. Over and over, they said leadership teams were starting to realize the value public relations can play in their organizations, internally and externally.
Creating and maintaining relationships is the core of a PR professional’s job, and we’ve got a lot to offer besides drafting a press release every so often. Because we’re writers, strategic thinkers, fixers, interview trainers, planners, and good listeners, we can be ready at a moment’s notice when a crisis hits—and stays around for months—to lend a hand crafting internal and external strategy, messaging, and tactics.
While we can’t change past sentiments about public relations, we can hold on to the progress we’ve made this year within our companies and with our clients. Keep your seat at the conference table, virtual or real, and you’ll be able to easily unravel that crisis communication bow day by day. And if you need help, call us.