In the modern world we face many crisis situations (coronavirus, anyone?). A Spokesperson is there to steer this ship. According to research, the key to responding effectively is to respond quickly, accept responsibility (if there is some), and communicate from the top.
We spoke to Hugo Stienstra, Global Spokesperson/Reputation Manager at paints and coatings company AkzoNobel for some guidance on how to be an effective Spokesperson. His expert tips can be found in quotation marks.
“A PR person can really help you in a crisis situation. Companies need to have someone who tells their story well and can guide people internally to tell that story.. It should be someone who knows how the media works, and what questions journalists are likely to ask. What might the sensitive questions be? They need to prepare for them.”
Here are some rules of thumb for Spokespeople at different stages of a crisis:
Train yourself and your staff
Think of training as stage rehearsals for a play- a well practiced theatre group is much more likely to nail their performance when the curtain rises. Conduct role plays, develop clear company protocol, and write thorough briefing books. Remember, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
“It’s important to train for crisis situations. Think of issues that might happen. Everyone who will be involved should do trainings: so that if a real crisis comes, it’s not the first time you’ve thought the response and the way of working through. You don’t want to have to think on the spot.”
Do research and anticipate crisis
By understanding the challenges your industry (and the world) is facing, you can form a pretty good idea of what issues are likely to crop up. You will need to keep your ear to the ground. Listen to consumers, keep up with the news, read about the competition; all these activities are worth your time.
“There are crises that can be foreseen because they are existing issues in society. So you need to know the topics in popular culture that people have emotions about, what their tone of voice is, and see if they are related to your business or not.”
“Alongside social media, you can sense what is happening in the world through media releases, by seeing what does or doesn't get picked up. There are several tools that can help you listen to what is said about your company and brands and what the tone of voice and the share of voice is. And of course, you can Google- but Google doesn't give you everything”
If your company finds itself in a crisis, act quickly- it is one of the key things that will regain trust with the public. Crisis breeds an especially critical audience, so it is best to take every opportunity to redeem yourself.
“Always try to be in the lead of communication. It's better. It's best to proactively communicate yourself, instead of others communicating for you because you were silent or too late.”
Tap into your network
During crisis moments, you will feel the benefits of the relationships you have with the media very keenly, as you will have allies.
“Your relationship with a journalist is key in moments of crisis. If the journalist knows you they will give you more time to provide an answer to something, instead of just publishing immediately.”
Acknowledge uncertainty or fear
The very nature of crises is often uncertain. It may seem counterintuitive, but expressing the unknown will boost your authority. It’s fine not to know everything, just as long as you take action in the areas you do know.
Communicate the facts
Only tell people what you truly know at that moment, not what you think you know. A crisis is not a time for speculation or assumptions, nor is it a time for dishonesty. Good reputations are built upon truthfulness, so stick to the facts.
Explain that there is a process in place
To truly show that you have understood a crisis, you will have to present the plan you have made to overcome it. Everyone makes mistakes. But showing that you are learning from those mistakes, staying humble, and expressing wishes for the future, is how you make up for it.
Follow your protocol or briefing books
It may be tempting to stray the course when a chorus of voices enter a situation, but plans are put in place for a reason. You and your team will have spent a long time thinking about possible scenarios and their best responses, so trust in your work and follow your plan.
Feel the room
That being said, if you anticipated speaking to a particular audience and you are instead faced with an entirely different one, it is wise to adapt your plan to new realities. Bringing a bouncy castle to a gathering of people with pitchforks is not a sensible idea. Exercise some common sense.
Follow up on issues
If your audience or the media asks you questions you are not able to answer during the crisis, make sure you follow up as soon as you have the information. Being reliable and punctual shows respect, which is the foundation of a good reputation.
No matter how well you plan, there will always be situations you couldn’t have dreamed up. Make sure every mistake is a learning experience and you update your protocol. Only then will your communication strategy will be the best around.