Our senior vice president, Nicole Kieser, had the opportunity to speak to students at Northeastern University earlier this month. The class, Public Relations Principles, focused on crisis communications during a mass casualty incident- i.e. Boston Marathon bombings from April 15, 2013.  Sadly, Brussels was also part of this discussion, as terrorism is a fact of daily life in 2016.

Nicole’s career has taken her through various newsrooms in Boston, and her experience in public relations also has required her to lead crisis management for many clients.

A crisis doesn’t need to be at the level of the marathon bombings or Brussels suicide bombings for it to need attention. Any company, at any time, can face a crisis situation which can make or break their brand and their reputation. It’s how you handle the crisis that will ultimately define the company’s future success. Nicole offered a few best practices when a crisis hits to the NU students.

Expect it to happen, prepare in advance. Inevitably, all companies face a crisis, whether of their own making, or due to unforeseen circumstances. There are some very definitive steps to take to be prepared for when the crisis hits.

  • Assemble a crisis team– and know their strengths. Make sure you identify spokespersons, and their roles well before there is a problem that needs solving.
  • Identify communications goals- this might be difficult to prepare when you don’t know what the crisis will be, but the sooner you anticipate what might go wrong, the better you can craft your approach and your message.
  • Train your spokespersons. Retrain your spokespersons. Having an initial media/ message training is great, do it again so they can practice and adjust messaging based on the crisis. Set practice schedules every quarter to keep up to date.
  • Establish internal notification systems- and set guidelines for when they are activated. Does your team assemble in one place? Do you have a complete list of contacts for your crisis team to reach out to before a crisis begins?
  • Draft ‘holding’ statements in advance. This will craft the messaging that has been agreed upon by the team. There will be no time for edits when the real crisis hits.

When the crisis hits:

  • Stop everything for as long as possible for assessment. TAKE A DEEP BREATH. No answering media calls; no social media posts. The crisis has just become your number one priority until it’s been resolved.
  • Activate your crisis team notification systems. Let them know the crisis has hit, and to put agreed-upon protocols in place. Remind your team to stay off social media, regardless of whether they are posting about a crisis. There is no delete on the internet.
  • Establish a command center – if appropriate. Notify the media at this point.
  • Identify leadership in charge. Brief your key spokespersons on what you know so far.
  • Activate other pre-established roles for your team. Who will monitor the crisis on-line? On social media platforms? Who will be designated on-site?
  • What is the headline, who is your audience? In the case of a Mass Casualty Incident- the first headline is public safety. Your audience? Everyone is your audience- first responders, hospitals, victims, the public on scene, those watching at home.
  • Once you determine who your speaking to, assign key messages to your spokespersons.
  • Remember the victims and their family. Respect their privacy; outreach should be personal and authentic.
  • Be as honest as possible with all communications.

As the crisis continues:

  • Don’t go dark! Keep the media and the public informed.
  • Continue to monitor media coverage. This includes social media and the public’s knowledge.
  • Redefine your headline, reassess your audience. Have these changed since the initial crisis hit?

When the crisis passes, regroup and assess. Are there areas for improvement? Did the plan work well? Continue your outreach to victims, invest in their emotions- it’s the right thing to do.