As Ronan Keating once crooned,‘You say it best, when you say nothing at all’.
Whilst the teenage me would have taken this as gospel, I now have to question whether Ronan was telling a bit of a fib.
After all, saying nothing – particularly when others know that you are holding something back – can actually make things far worse.
The information gap
We see this a lot in the news and in our workplaces. When we know that there is something that we don’t know, it generates a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’, making us feel at best left out, and at worst deliberately excluded.
The longer that nothing is said, the more audiences attempt to fill the gaps themselves. It is human nature that people usually assume the worst, fuelling their innate fears by filling gaps in their knowledge with the worst-case scenario.
2020 has been a year of rapidly changing circumstances and information gaps, resulting in ever-increasing anxiety levels as the nation continuously waits to hear whether jobs are safe, wages will be paid or we can see our loved ones. Whilst some of those information gaps have been inevitable and unavoidable, it is clear that a lack of information can make things worse.
How to handle a crisis
When I completed my crisis communications training, I remember the tutor stressing how important it is to give accurate information in a timely manner. This sounds simple, but the day’s activities proved just how hard this can be in a highly-charged and fast-paced crisis situation.
Each of the course participants were given a role to play in a mock crisis situation, and were drip-fed information throughout the day (some of which later proved to be incorrect), which they could use to shape their communications with the media, the public and those affected by the incident.
I was nominated as the spokesperson for a fictional airline which had lost contact with one of its scheduled flights, and the plane was suspected to have crashed. As would be the case in a real crisis, information was scarce to begin with, and there was a lot of speculation – both within the airline and in the wider world – as to what had happened.
During the day, I was put through my paces by a current tabloid journalist and a former BBC cameraman, who between them used every trick in the book to try and get me to say more than I could be confident was true. I was grilled at a press conference, I was confronted by a doorstepping journalist whilst attempting to get to my ‘office’, and press statements were misquoted in order to try and change the implications of the original wording.
All of this was filmed for me and the other participants to watch back at the end of the course. Whilst not easy viewing (who likes watching themselves back on camera?!), it demonstrated how much our body language can give away even when our words say very little.
There’s no doubt about it – it is tough to be a spokesperson in a crisis situation.
Preparing for a crisis
Providing crisis communications support is now one aspect of what I do for a living. When something unexpected happens to a business which knocks it for six, panic can quickly set in, and it can be hard for those directly involved to take a step back and see the bigger picture. It can be helpful to have someone on the outside who can see the wood from the trees.
Thanks to the double-edged sword that is social media, stories travel quickly, and it is vital for the business in question to take control of the narrative as soon as possible to prevent inaccuracies spreading like wildfire. That’s why I always advise businesses to prepare for an unknown crisis that might never happen (so that they will know what to do if it does), rather than wait for disaster to strike.
5 top tips for communicating in a crisis
It’s always a good idea to have a full plan in place so that you know who your spokesperson/people will be, who will prepare the response, and which communications channels you will use. However, if you find yourself needing to get the word out quickly, here are my 5 top tips for communicating in a crisis.
- 1. Respond quickly, but don’t say more than you know. Set out the facts as you know them, and be honest about anything that you don’t (yet) know.
- 2. People first, pound signs second. Always acknowledge the human (or animal) impact of the crisis before referencing any damage to property or finances.
- 3. Stick to your guns. Don’t be afraid to read from a pre-prepared statement, and repeat its contents as many times as you need to in the face of media questions. Use this opportunity to quash any rumours that you can prove are not true.
- 4. Prepare your team. If the media or the public think that they will get more information by asking your team members directly, they will do so. Help them to know what to do or say if they are approached.
- 5. Say what will happen next. Advise when you will next communicate – this could be a physical time (e.g. a press conference at 3pm), or when something has occurred (e.g. issuing another statement when XYZ is known). Doing this keeps the ball in your court.
Above all, try to remain calm. This is easier said than done, but remaining in control of yourself helps you to remain in control of the situation and the narrative. I’m not saying you need to be a robot – in a crisis situation it can be very important to show that you care – but be confident in what you are saying, and know that in a tough situation you are doing your best.
Saying nothing vs. saying something
In everyday life, there is much to be said for following the old maxim ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’, but saying nothing in a crisis situation can quickly make matters worse.
If you don’t have a plan for responding to a crisis, perhaps you should. Even a quick chat with your team and some scribbles on the back of an envelope will be of some help should disaster strike.
Forewarned is forearmed. Or, as the Scouts put it, always be prepared.
Take care and stay safe,