While a crisis is unpredictable in nature, it often follows a very predictable path. It starts with an unexpected action or event that poses a risk, threat or adverse reaction to people, places and things.

Within minutes of the crisis occurring, members of the public, regulators, decision makers, the media and other stakeholders being learning about what has happened, and naturally begin seeking more information. To get it, they begin communicating publicly.

While interest begins growing in the emerging issue, those who have the most information are busy trying to address the problem itself, get a sense of scale and begin implementing a strategy to regain control of the issue. In doing so, often these key players fail to effectively communicate with interested and impacted parties.

That information vacuum is quickly filled by first-hand accounts, speculation by members of the public and issue experts, and public opinion begins to form with what information is available on social and traditional media. Heroes and villains begin to emerge as part of the narrative. As opinions begin solidifying and emotional responses are being felt, the benefits of communicating effectively later are compromised.

Effective crisis communications requires communicating candidly and with appropriate levels of concern, compassion and sincerity, both early and often.

Not having all the answers is not an excuse to not engage. Media especially will understand all the facts not being clear or available immediately, but appreciate being briefed on what is known, and having a commitment for regular updates as details become clearer.

We’ve worked with clients that have no crisis communications or crisis management plan in place prior to finding themselves at the centre of a storm. While not easy, it is possible to pull together a response and a planned course of action immediately following the development of a crisis.

Being honest and sincere while demonstrating genuine concern to making it right is key.

Crisis management can breed communications chaos internally, but having a single point of contact charged with collating key information and preparing communications briefs for a designated spokesperson (or acting as the spokesperson themselves) goes a long way to ensuring effective, clear and timely information can be shared.

We’ve all seen bad crisis communications, but what is perhaps the greatest sin of bad crisis communications is a failure to address the impacted stakeholders who are living the results of the crisis themselves.

Especially when serious environmental damage or loss of life has occurred, it is absolutely critical for individuals in positions of authority to publicly address the crisis in a proactive, ongoing manner that speaks directly to those who are impacted.