When Calamity Strikes: Business Communication in a Crisis

Communication Skills

When the bubble bursts, the balloon pops, and the cookie crumbles — you get the drift — i.e., when your business is facing a crisis, what should you do? A lot of things. Crisis management is at the top of the list, and crisis communication is one of its most crucial components.

Telling your stakeholders (including customers and clients) about the crisis, doing so immediately, talking humbly, honestly, and candidly, and providing constant updates is a priority. In short, when faced with a potentially catastrophic issue, a business must communicate promptly, correctly, and frequently. This is how media training can help.

What Is Media Training and Why Do You Need It in a Crisis?

Media training is a specialized communication skill enhancement program that teaches people to talk to the public and the media. It will help you make announcements, respond to interview questions, and handle hostile interactions.

Media training is for anyone who must make official announcements and may deal with members of the press. It is generally useful for anyone whose job description involves releasing statements and communicating with the media (e.g., company spokesperson, public relations officer, social media manager, etc.).

Celebrities, politicians, business leaders, and their respective agents — anyone journalists and reporters routinely interview, who are usually under public scrutiny, or those who speak on behalf of such personalities — can benefit from media training.

The overarching goal of media training is to empower individuals to communicate with precision and clarity, remain in control during the conversation, and convey what must be said without straying from the message.

It is particularly useful during times of crisis, when public and media interest in a business, especially in its crisis handling and response, are naturally high.

During a crisis, you need to release statements on your websites and socials. You may be interviewed and asked to explain and answer questions. With media training, you can do these things correctly and effectively and even leverage the crisis to your business’s advantage.

KFC: Own It and Talk About It

In 2018, KFC United Kingdom experienced supply chain issues that closed almost 900 locations. People were upset about it, and the company suffered, its brand impression score dropping to -12.

KFC handled the crisis incredibly well, paying for full-page ads showing a KFC bucket with the letters rearranged so they read FCK. This demonstrated self-awareness for the brand — it told people KFC was aware it messed up — but it did so in such a tongue-in-cheek way people couldn’t help but laugh (or smile) about it.

Additionally, KFC provided constant updates about its supply situation on its website and actively responded to questions on its social media platforms.

This example may not involve an interview with a KFC spokesperson, but it still demonstrates the company’s excellent media and crisis-handling skills.

Starbucks: Respond Promptly and Say It Correctly

Starbucks faced a more severe problem in 2018. Their crisis involved a Philadelphia store calling the police to arrest two African American men who were waiting for a friend to arrive. The altercation was caught on video, grew viral, and sparked nationwide protests and widespread calls to boycott Starbucks on social media.

In response to the crisis, Starbucks immediately released a statement acknowledging the incident. However, upon realizing that the company’s written acknowledgment was insufficient and that the situation was graver than the company might have initially thought, Starbucks followed it up with a video statement from its CEO, Kevin Johnson.

If you have time, you can listen to Johnson’s statement here. Note his consistently apologetic and humble tone, beginning with a personal apology to the gentlemen who had been arrested. Using “reprehensible” to describe what happened and stating unequivocally that the gentlemen did not deserve the treatment they got clearly indicated that the company was aware it was in the wrong.

Johnson took personal accountability by saying he was to blame. He also promised to institute measures to ensure it will not happen again. In line with this, Starbucks conducted a racial bias training for its U.S. employees.

This crisis did not leave Starbucks unscathed. For instance, the company had to pay an undisclosed amount to the gentlemen involved in the incident and, just recently, it lost in a suit filed by a regional manager who was fired one month after the incident (the jury awarded the employee $25.6 million).

Even so, Starbucks’ swift response, especially how the CEO communicated his personal and the company’s “mea culpas” through his language and actions during and after the crisis, might have saved the company from a worse fate.

Learn to Communicate (Well) in a Crisis

When a company is experiencing a crisis, especially for something it did wrong, its leadership and spokespersons have two choices. They can respond quickly, acknowledge the matter, apologize, and take personal accountability. Alternatively, they can ignore the problem, shift the blame to another party, and hope the issue soon goes away.

If you’re wondering which option is the right course of action, think back to 2017, specifically the incident involving Dr. David Dao and United Airlines. When it happened, United’s CEO blamed Dao and called him belligerent and disruptive. Consequently, the public responded with #boycottUnited hashtags. In the end, the company accepted full responsibility, but at that point, the damage had already been done.

Just in case it’s not clear, when in a crisis, always address the issue promptly and sincerely accept responsibility, especially if it’s due to your mistake, then talk to a business advisory company to explore future steps and your risk mitigation options.

Finally, to ensure key personnel (including your CEO and company spokespersons) are prepared to address the media and the public when a crisis strikes, make them undergo media training.

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