This past Sunday night, 60 minutes released a scathing report on the safety record of Allegiant Airlines. Social media exploded, follow up news stories appeared, and the company was officially in a crisis PR situation. While most of us won’t find ourselves in a crisis of this scale, we could easily find ourselves in the midst of a crisis that has the potential to upend our organization, church, or ministry.
With the rise of social media and what some have labeled the outrage culture, it seems that nearly every day some brand or company is under attack. Oftentimes these crises are self-inflicted and the onslaught comes as a result of a joke gone wrong, a culturally insensitive remark, or some other type of misstep by the organization or one of its leaders. Other times, an organization is upended by an event for which it had no way to prepare: the moral failure of a leader, a tragedy of some sort, or some other unforeseen circumstance.
Whatever the cause of a crisis may be, how an organization responds to a crisis will come to define them as much or more than the cause of the crisis itself. In this new digital age, the first outlet for such a response will most certainly be some form of social media. So (hopefully) before the crisis comes, here are a few tips for preparing for the crisis that will inevitably come.
What is a crisis?
First, it’s important to define exactly what is and what is not a crisis situation. If you don’t have a clear understanding of the threshold for a crisis, you and your organization are susceptible to everything becoming a crisis. Patrick Whatman writing for Mention helpfully points out that “not every piece of bad news or negative headline should force you to go ‘code red.’”
He cites Jay Baer to help us determine exactly when we are in a crisis situation. The three characteristics are:
- Information asymmetry: When you don’t know any more than the public about what’s going on.
- A change from the norm: Everyday criticism of your products is not a crisis. When your products explode at random – that’s a crisis.
- Serious risk to your company: It seems obvious, but the scope of the issue is important. For something to be a crisis, it needs to have a truly negative effect.
As you can see, a crisis is any situation that goes beyond normal criticism of your organization and includes both a lack of information and the potential for a truly negative effect on your organization or ministry.
Before going any further, here are a couple helpful questions to consider:
- What is a potential crisis my organization or ministry could face?
- What is a crisis situation my organization or ministry has faced, even if we didn’t know it was a crisis at the time?
Develop a crisis communications plan
The first step in effective communications after a crisis is effective planning before a crisis. Unfortunately, developing a crisis communications plan is a task that is easy to put off. Then one day a crisis hits. Rather than simply executing your plan, you waste precious time figuring out what you should be doing.
Here are the key components of a basic crisis communications plan:
1. Identify key people
When a crisis hits, the very first thing you’ll need to know is who needs to know. Consider these questions in determining the “Who?”:
- Who needs to be alerted?
- Who needs to be consulted?
- Who is responsible for monitoring the crisis?
- Who will speak on behalf of the organization?
- Who has ultimate authority to approve your response?
Before the crisis comes, it would be wise to get each one of these people in the room to discuss and define everyone’s role. It is important to note that the primary leader of your organization or ministry, be it the president, CEO, or senior pastor, needs to be involved in this discussion. It is imperative that they be on board with the plan and they know who is filling each role.
2. Determine which platforms are best
Not all digital platforms are created equal when it comes to their effectiveness in a crisis response situation. Perhaps you are managing communications for a multi-generational church and a story breaks on the local news that portrays your church in an unfavorable light. The best response to this is most likely not a Snapchat Story or an Instagram post.
When considering your response you need to consider audience, reach, and nature of the response. If the crisis originates in a local newspaper, a press release or statement that is then distributed on Facebook and Twitter may be better than a YouTube video. If, for some reason, the situation rises to the level of a full blown crisis, you will need to plan to respond using all mediums available to you.
Consider these questions when determining which platforms are best:
- Which audiences engage with your content on each platform?
- Where did the crisis originate and which medium is best suited for a response for each type of crisis?
- Do we have the ability to quickly produce a video, graphic, or press release if the crisis demands it?
3. Establish crisis priorities
As a Christian organization or ministry, it is easy to lose sight of your identity and mission when a crisis hits. For this reason, it’s important to resolve in advance the spirit, tone, and goal of your response. Public relations matters for Christian organizations not because we are trying to protect our profit or brand but because we are ambassadors of Christ in this world. As always, our aim to to glorify him in all situations—crisis or not.
It should go without saying, but the worst thing you can do (on many levels) is to be untruthful. Not only will it come back to bite you when the truth comes out, it reflects poorly upon Christ and damages your credibility in your community.
The tone of your response should be marked by humility, honesty, and transparency. Now this does not mean that everyone is entitled to every piece of information related to the crisis. If the crisis involved personnel or other sensitive matters, you may not be able to share many details. But you should strive to reflect a Christlike spirit in your responses. More than any other time, the eyes of your community will be on your church or ministry during a time of crisis. What better time to reinforce the mission and values you claim?
Time to plan
While these steps are by no means exhaustive, they will get you started in the right direction as you prepare for the inevitable crisis. All of us can think of examples of organizations that are caught flat-footed when a crisis hits. The good news is this can be prevented. All it takes is one person spearheading this effort in your organization. Start today. Because when crisis comes, there is no time to wait.
Colby Adams is director of communications at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In this role, his work focuses on media relations, social media, and overall digital strategy. Prior to this, he served on a church staff in Lexington, KY for five years.