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The Need for Speed in a Crisis

The Mower office in Charlotte is just around the corner from the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Every morning when I arrive at my office, I’m reminded that speed wins championships. And not just in racing.

Today’s always-on digital environment means that when there’s a crisis, public relations pros often play from behind. The news usually breaks before we have a press release drafted or a statement written. The sooner we begin operating under this realization, the better prepared we will be to help the brands we represent.

CNN launched the age of 24-hour cable news in the summer of 1980. For public relations professionals, it signaled the death of the news cycle, the deadlines when morning and evening newspapers went to press and the 6–7 p.m. window when local and national television news aired. For the next two decades news options expanded, adding more 24-hour all-news programming and websites focused on everything from national politics to local high school sports. But it was 2009 when we entered a new age that showed us what fast truly looked like. That was the year when a US Airways A320 lost power because of multiple bird strikes and was forced to land on the Hudson River.

Twitter user Janis Krums sent this message to his 170 followers: “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” Krums’ tweet, including a photo clearly showing it was a US Airways jet floating in the river with survivors perched on both wings, scooped all of the major news networks and was being rapidly shared before the airline even had the chance to access the passenger manifest or gather its communication team. MSNBC was interviewing Krums live 30 minutes later, and the power of Twitter as a breaking news source was instantly established.

That was nearly 10 years ago. The number of smart phone users with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts has grown exponentially, as have blogs, niche media and influencers. Being fast and prepared is not enough.

Everything we do, from the plans we write to the technology we deploy to the people we hire, must yearn for speed and wreak of flexibility. Sports coaches say you cannot teach speed, but when it comes to communicating during a crisis, you can prepare to be fast.

Here are four rules that can help your organization move quickly when a crisis strikes:

  1. Always Be Ready to Say Something: Consumers in the digital age expect almost instant access to information. Moreover, consumers are willing to accept third-party speculation — even if it contains bad or misleading facts — when companies don’t supply information rapidly. How quickly could your company distribute core information about your products, people or facilities? Having fact sheets and basic information at the ready can help fill space and time when rumors might otherwise take control.
  2. Get the Facts and Filter the Noise: You need a crisis team that can gather facts rapidly and provide a clear understanding of what is known, what is believed and what is yet to be determined. Never speculate about the cause of the crisis. But don’t get trapped waiting to learn every single detail.
  3. Shorten the Approval Cycle: When a crisis hits, the first reaction often is to include more people in the review process for statements and press releases. Adding legal counsel and key operations personnel to approvals is important, but you need to dramatically reduce the total amount of time involved. Each person in the approval cycle should have a deputy who can act on their behalf to approve materials and keep communications flowing smoothly.
  4. Have the Right Tools and Right Talent: Digital communications changes the way we respond to crises. Rapidly disseminating a video or sharing a photo can reduce rumors and ease anxiety. You need to invest in developing social platforms and having the right software that can help you reach key audiences instantaneously. Members of your team must have the necessary metabolism and a tendency for action in the face of rapidly evolving circumstances.

In a crisis, minutes matter. Your ability to turn a game of catch-up into one where media and influencers are following what you have to say requires speed and skill.