Here at Kith, we are firm believers in a series of core principles that we have seen work time and time again in a crisis. These are a combination of beliefs, frameworks, and tactics that we always start with because we know these work in the most challenging of times.
We’ve compiled them here as a quick reference for you to have at hand if you find yourself approaching, or in, crisis. By all means, innovate and be bold in your response but not at the expense of these fundamentals.
Understand your risks
There will be risks that led to this point and risk in whatever course of action you take. You need to understand and plan for these, but that can be difficult in a complicated, fast-moving situation. We use a simple model that divides risks into one of three categories: Strategic, Preventable, and External.
The SPE framework helps you determine which of the risks you face are shared (Strategic), are your responsibility (Preventable), or are forced upon you (External). That immediately helps you focus on the most significant risks you face so you can prioritize these and tackle them with urgency. (Read more about understanding your risks here.)
Speed is key
Over and over again, we see how speed wins in a crisis. The organization that is fast and nimble can bob and weave its way through a crisis taking minimum damage compared to a slower, sluggish competitor.
But speed without direction isn’t enough. The right kind of speed comes from a combination of understanding your values and having a clear, robust chain of command. With these in place, you can establish a clear path out of crisis and execute on that rapidly, getting you out of trouble as quickly as possible. (Read more about speed in a crisis here.)
Speak truth to power
As communicators, we have a unique perspective of what people outside our organization are thinking and saying. It’s vital that our organization understands that perspective to make decisions effectively and communicate with those who matter most but that external perspective can be hard to hear. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to share hard truths with our leaders and to ask the tough questions. Speaking truth to power is difficult, and sometimes the messenger can become a target, but we’re the only ones who have this perspective and we must speak up. (Read more about speaking truth to power here.)
Obey the basic principles of crisis communications
We like to think of a simple matrix of four key points that sum up the principles of successful crisis communications. These all expand into more detailed instructions and tactics, but keep these four in mind as you plan and execute your communications strategy.
- Facts and instructions build your output. You have a story to tell, but that won’t be effective if the facts aren’t well understood or the guidance you want to share gets buried. Make sure that these come through loud and clear in your messages.
- Care, concern, and sentiment come from listening. Communications is a two-way street and you have to listen to what people are saying in response, particularly those who matter most. Listen carefully and use this input to shape your message into one of care and concern.
- A, B, C: always be communicating. People need to hear your story multiple times before it sticks. When you feel like you’re communicating too much, you’ve probably got it about right.
- Manage expectations. Understand the needs, wants, and hopes of your audience but be realistic when you respond. Acknowledge and speak to people’s expectations but don’t overpromise and underdeliver. Address what you can, when you can, but remember, one of the most powerful things a leader can say is ‘I don’t know.’
Ask the four fundamental questions early
I like to kick off every crisis session by asking the same four questions as I find that these help identify the main components of the crisis communication strategy early on.
- Who matters most?
- Who are your best spokespeople?
- What is the best channel to narrowcast your message?
- What’s an appropriate cadence?
Answering these four questions is usually pretty straightforward and allows the communications team to have the right person, speaking to the right people, in the most effective way, as quickly as possible. Then you just need to add your messages, which leads to my next point.
Use 6+2 to tell your story effectively
We believe that there is a simple formula for effective statements that we call the 6 + 2 model. Ensure that these six core elements appear in every communication to tell your story effectively. Then, where possible, include one of the additional points to really bring your message home.
- Empathy – express sincere, genuine care for anyone affected.
- Authority – demonstrate that an executive has ownership of this issue.
- Transparency – be real about what is happening and how it’s impacting people. Address the facts as they stand now but acknowledge that these can change in a dynamic and evolving situation.
- Decisiveness – clearly explain the specific steps you’re taking to mitigate the situation.
- Reassurance – think about who is hurt, angry or scared, and what would calm them.
- Consistency – explain how when and where you are going to keep the updates coming (then stick to that cadence).
- +1: Make a Hero – give shout outs to employees, first responders or others who have stepped up to make a difference
- +1: Give Back – what steps are you taking to help the broader community
Focus on the 80%, not the 20%
It’s always easy to be distracted by the loudest voices in a conversation and be in no doubt, during a crisis, there will be many loud voices. But it’s too easy to over-index for a vocal minority at the expense of the majority. I like to ask myself, ‘What would reasonable people appropriately expect a responsible organization to do in this situation?’ to help remind myself what’s reasonable. And if we meet that test and 80% of folks seem agreeable, then I’m happy we’re on the right track.
I don’t ignore that 20 %: there might be valuable feedback amongst all the noise. But I don’t want to change what’s working for 80% of people to appease 20%, just because they’re louder.
I always say that the crucible of crisis doesn’t develop your leadership, it reveals it, and how you behave in these most testing of times is how you will be remembered. You will face enormous pressure in a crisis when information, clarity, and time are in short supply. In turn, this pressure can tempt you to do the bare minimum, or only do what’s mandated by law, as a way to achieve speed.
However, even though we believe that speed is critical, speed without direction is dangerous. That direction comes from your values, and you must always have these in mind while you are making decisions.
Ask ‘how would we feel if this was done to us, or our loved ones‘ to help make ethical decisions and do the right thing. Otherwise, your speed will take you in the wrong direction, and you won’t be remembered favorably once the crisis has passed. (Read more about behaving ethically in a crisis here.)
Each situation is very different, so you may lean on one of these principles more heavily than another, or there might be a ninth, tenth, or even 11th principle that you want to incorporate. However, over decades of helping companies navigate crises, these eight principles have formed the basis of our response in almost every situation. I would recommend these to you as a good place to start.