When a crisis happens, effective communication is one of the steps that must accompany the specific actions taken by an organization to address and mitigate the fallout. Businesses must communicate with clients and customers, as well as notify employees, politicians, regulators and the public. As part of a larger crisis communications plan, press releases are a key avenue to disseminate information to all affected constituents. The manner in which a company responds to a crisis can immediately shape public perceptions and have long-term consequences. Organizations have learned to be proactive, with leaders both accessible and transparent. When affected groups are accurately identified and informed, those responsible for dealing with a crisis gain crucial time to effectively solve it.
Tone and Transparency
Crises can and do happen to all types of organizations, from public corporations and private companies to hospitals and governments. Shareholders, customers, employees, patients and constituents have a right to know the truth in a timely and transparent way. Organizations that are not forthcoming can easily back themselves into a destructive cycle from which they may find it difficult or impossible to recover. Leaders should make every effort to maintain their accessibility and positive relationships with the press, both before and during a crisis, as credibility can determine both how the crisis is reported and how the public perceives it. The press is adept at discerning open dialogue and transparency versus delay and obfuscation, and reports accordingly.
Organizations should develop and practice proactive procedures so that when a crisis hits, they are prepared. Levelheaded action trumps panic every time. Upper management members should be notified immediately so they can begin to deal with the crisis rather than learning about it on the Internet or their local news media. Regulated and licensed businesses must notify the appropriate agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Effective press releases indicate all such specific steps taken, including dates, contact information, personnel involved and ongoing plans.
History has repeatedly shown that organizations willing to accept responsibility swiftly and unequivocally can quickly regain the confidence and trust of key constituents. In a well-known case from the 1980s, the sabotage of Tylenol could easily have sent the brand's owner, Johnson & Johnson, reeling for years. As The New York Times reported, "But only two months later, Tylenol was headed back to the market, this time in tamper-proof packaging and bolstered by an extensive media campaign. A year later, its share of the $1.2 billion analgesic market, which had plunged to 7 percent from 37 percent following the poisoning, had climbed back to 30 percent." The company put its customers first by recalling 31 million bottles and replacing them free of charge in a tamper-resistant form.
Accurate and concise press releases should generally fit on a single page and fall within 300 to 500 words. Beyond that length, editors are less inclined to take the time to carefully read through them. When sent by fax, one-page press releases also avoid the possibility of lost or mismatched pages. If necessary, further communications can be sent when additional crisis information or updates become available.
- Ready: Crisis Communications Plan
- Disaster Recovery Journal: Proactive Crisis Communications
- Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education: Working Effectively With the Media
- eReleases: What's the Right Press Release Length?
- The New York Times: Tylenol Made a Hero of Johnson & Johnson: The Recall that Started Them All
Robert Rimm graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and founded 88keys.com to provide education, writing and communications services for clients within the nonprofit, arts and education communities in the United States, Europe and Russia. His key interests include art and culture, social entrepreneurship, education, the environment and human rights. He is fluent in French and Russian, and is a widely published author.