by Susan Shelby
A survey conducted in 2016 by Nasdaq PR Services and PR News Pro found that only half of the firms polled had crisis communications plans in place. In the AEC industry, we tend to think about a crisis in terms of job site accidents or fatalities, but there are other incidents that could bring unwanted media scrutiny of your company. The newspapers are full of businesses affected by a crisis: sexual harassment or discrimination, workplace violence, financial irregularities, layoffs, natural disasters, etc. Are you prepared to respond if the press calls?
Before the age of the Internet and social media, companies used to have what communications professionals called the “golden hour” to respond to a crisis. Today, it’s more like minutes, a reality that makes a crisis communications plan vital to your business. One tool in the crisis communications plan that you can prepare in advance and keep in your pocket is the “holding statement,” the first statement you share with the press during a crisis.
A holding statement is a prepared response, derived from a thoughtfully crafted template, that allows you to respond quickly to press inquiries even when you do not know all the facts. It does not have to go into great detail because you are still gathering information. An effective holding statement can buy you time with the press until you better understand what has happened.
To develop a holding statement, convene your designated internal crisis response team (CRT) to brainstorm potential crisis situations that could negatively impact your business. Then prepare holding statements for each one, creating a template with blanks for future customization. You should develop holding statements for various communications platforms, from social media posts to personal email. Be sure to include a list of your social media platforms in your crisis communications plan along with guidelines for length, format, etc.
A significant advantage to preparing holding statements in advance is that it allows for a full review by your CRT, including your legal team, HR, and management, at a time when the press is not urgently calling you for comment.
Key elements of a successful holding statement
This is a good time to follow the rule of KISS: “keep it short and sweet.” Given that a holding statement is issued shortly after you learn of a crisis, it should focus on the essentials of what you know at the time and not speculation. The press does not expect you to know everything, but you should be as clear and concise as you possibly can to provide them with the information they need to do their job.
- Empathy: a crisis is an emotional time, even if you are not responsible for what happened. Be sure to show you understand the severity of what happened and demonstrate compassion, concern, and humility.
- Action: even in the initial stages, communicate what you know is fact and what you are doing to deal with the situation. This could be as simple as saying you are coordinating with OSHA or the relevant authorities.
- Reassurance: put the incident into context and explain what you are doing for all those involved.
- Examples: outline the steps you have taken in response to the incident.
- Details: the press is interested in the five W’s – what, where, when, who, and why? However, at this time you should not speculate on why unless you are absolutely certain of your facts. You can say: “The cause of the incident is not yet known but an investigation has been launched and we are cooperating with the relevant authorities.”
- Updates: indicate when and/or how you will give updates moving forward. This may be a landing page on your website, an email from your CRT, or a daily briefing.
Follow the motto of the Boy Scouts and be prepared. Bring your CRT together and map out all the possible incidents that could affect your company, and then prepare holding statements for each one. In the event of a crisis, you’ll be glad you did.
Susan Shelby, FSMPS, CPSM is the president and CEO of Rhino Public Relations