The Three Rs to Advise a Client on Crisis Communications

Crisis Accounting Banking Failure Financial Concept

News stories daily remind us: a crisis is no longer a question of if, but when.

Coverage of a crisis situation once was distributed by the newswires. Subsequently, it was reported in breaking news spots on television and radio broadcasts, followed by the late afternoon and next day’s daily newspaper.

Today, digital phones permit citizen journalists to capture and broadcast events on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook Live without the supervision of an editor or the infrastructure of a news publication.

Companies, businesses and individuals in a crisis situation may be caught off-guard. They are often at a disadvantage and likely struggle to regain their footing in the spontaneous whirlwind of unsought media attention. The catalyst may be allegation of sexual harassment, chemical spill, data hacking, warehouse fire or any number of ill-fated scenarios.

Attorneys should remind their clients of the perils ahead. If you have not already encouraged your clients to develop a crisis communication plan in advance, and provided some guidance on best practices, do so immediately.

As a complement to a well-developed plan, here is a simple mnemonic to managing communications in a crisis: the three Rs.

Children in elementary school learn the Three R’s of Reading, (W)Riting and (A)Rithmetic as the basis of education. Within the context of crisis communication, they become Regret, Recompense and Reform. Although an advisor’s instinct may be to minimize liability by limiting communication, the proven strategy is clear and straightforward, timely and consistent contact with the press and stakeholders, as follows:

Regret, Recompense and Reform

Regret: Whether reported externally or internally, as soon as an incident of injury or loss becomes known, issue a statement that acknowledges its occurrence. Take responsibility and note complete cooperation with the authorities, be they police and/or fire department: Distribute a bare-bones factual statement on this order to local media outlets; include the contact information of a single company spokesperson for subsequent follow-up.

“Company XYZ has learned an accident occurred at its Anytown location. There is a confirmed report of ## people dead and ## people injured at the scene. We greatly regret the losses suffered there and send our condolences to the families who have lost their dear ones. We are working closely with the local authorities to learn all we can about the circumstances. We will keep you apprised as the situation becomes clearer and we are able to share more details with you and the public.”

Although an attorney’s instinct is to minimize liability by limiting communication, it’s important to act with speed and clarity. Any delay in issuing such a statement may prove extremely damaging to a company’s reputation, not to mention sales of its products and its stock price. Customers, vendors, local elected officials and area residents expect to receive such an announcement within two hours of the incident. The spokesperson should stick to the script set by the statement and repeat it as often as necessary.

Recompense: Acknowledge the loss of property, product or life and say compensation will be forthcoming as the damage is evaluated. Depending on the situation, this recompense may be of a material or a financial nature. For example, with a product malfunction, compensation may be a coupon in excess of the value of the under-performing product or its replacement. In the case of loss of life, a fund for the victim’s family members may be appropriate.

Money is not a blanket solution. Nonetheless, it may assuage some of the immediate pain, demonstrate the client is taking responsibility for the loss and point to the prospect of recovery in the future.

Reform: State that a well-regarded independent consultant will conduct an inquiry to review all procedures from top to bottom, bottom to top, and make recommendations. These changes will be implemented at a proximate date, to ensure that the incident is not repeated.

The objective analysis, report and subsequent changes in policy and procedure are a solid indication of lessons learned by the client and the intention that the incident will never, ever, never recur.

Taken together, the Three Rs — Regret, Recompense and Reform — are the foundation for responding to a crisis. Similar to the fire drills held quarterly, urge your clients to conduct a simulation several times each year. This will ensure the plan is updated with current employee contact information and tested. In addition, executives will confirm it remains consistent with best practices and familiar to current staff, regardless of employee turnover and recent promotions.

One hopes to never use the fire extinguisher, yet everyone should be prepared to meet the challenge of a crisis, be it computer breach, employee misbehavior, accident or product malfunction.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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