When the wrong film was announced as the winner of Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, all eyes immediately fell on a befuddled Warren Beatty. Moments later, after he shared his side of the story with the millions watching at home, scrutiny fell on PwC, the accounting authority responsible for overseeing the ballots. For an organization whose reputation hinges on its commitment to due diligence, accuracy and integrity, a gaffe of this magnitude required a swift response.

Welcome to the world of crisis communications. It’s important for businesses of all sizes, and the individuals associated with them to understand the importance of concise communications in a crisis, so key players can respond proactively, not reactively. While the definition of a crisis can be broad in scope, as it relates to businesses we will focus on three main threats: public safety, financial loss and reputation loss.

Recently, the cities of Calgary and Fort McMurray experienced crises that affected public safety, namely the flood of 2013 and the fire of 2016. Whether the crisis in question is environmental, operational or personal, a strategic communications plan is imperative. Let’s explore some best practices and principles surrounding crisis communications which aim to moderate threats to reputation, finances and security.

1. Stay Ahead of the Story

Don’t wait for an issue to break and never allow the narrative surrounding your business to be dictated by external sources. It’s important to always stay one step ahead by taking initiative if there’s an inkling that unfavourable news will break.  Communicating with stakeholders quickly, directly and openly is critical in keeping control over what news is being shared and why.

2. Stay in the Know

The sooner you know about an issue that may hit the headlines, the better. Be pre-emptive and monitor a variety of news sources relevant to your business daily to stay apprised of any media mentions. Conduct frequent scans of relevant information sources like social media tools, traditional media and blogs, and connect with those responsible for reporting. If and when an issue is detected, you can act accordingly to issue an appropriate response and mitigate the impact to your organization.

3. Communicate with all Stakeholders

It’s imperative that all stakeholders are informed when a crisis breaks, including those who are directly and indirectly affected. Employees, the board of directors, the media, partners, suppliers, and government agencies are groups that likely require immediate information, and as such, messaging tailored to each group should be created. There is nothing worse than hearing about a crisis from a third-party, so be proactive with your communications and respect your stakeholders’ right to information.

4. Honesty is the Best Policy

As the old adage goes, honesty is incredibly important, especially during a crisis. Providing a truthful account of the situation is paramount to maintaining credibility and integrity, so consider all the facts when crafting your communications. A crisis is not always a threat, and while it may appear as such, it can evolve into an opportunity. The way an organization responds to a crisis can shape the public’s perception and leave a lasting impression, so respond honesty.

5. Have a Plan

It’s important that everyone is on the same page in times of crisis. While many organizations have general communications guidelines regarding disclosure and procedures, a dedicated crisis communications plan is invaluable. A strong plan should provide the following:

  • A list of key contacts within the organization responsible for communications, media and public relations, including work and home phone numbers. The list should also include senior management and board members, where appropriate.
  • A list of key department contacts covering all areas of operation.
  • A directory of media and stakeholder contacts.
  • A template to record media contact and track activity.
  • An overview of the organization’s public relations policies and procedures and its core values.
  • An action plan outlining key personnel, their roles within the organization, action sequences and scenarios.
  • High-level organizational overviews that can be distributed to stakeholders and the media.