Communicating in a crisis: Making the best of a bad situation

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Picture this daunting scenario. A member of your organization is accused of operating a substandard practice. In an off-the-record comment to a reporter, the president of your association indicates that he, personally, believes it is a poorly operated practice. The next day, the newspaper quotes the president as stating that the association believes the practice in question is poor. To make matters worse, the accused veterinarian is a recent former president of your organization.

According to Dr. Gail C. Golab, assistant director of professional and public affairs for the AVMA, this scenario is similar to something that occurred recently in an actual organization. It's also a prime example of a situation in dire need of the Band-Aid of effective crisis communication.

Dr. Golab spoke at the recent AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference, offering media relations tips.

To mitigate crises effectively, an organization must have infrastructure in place to handle one before it hits. First, establish a crisis communication team. One individual should be designated as the crisis communication manager in case the whole team cannot be assembled in a timely manner. That person must be empowered to make final decisions but operate within the framework established by the team.

Once formed, the communication team should identify vulnerabilities, consider worst-case scenarios, and develop management plans. "If you consider the worst case, chances are that you have covered most of your bases," Dr. Golab said. "The goal is to anticipate crises, avoid the avoidable, and manage the unavoidable."

Second, identify spokespeople and clearly define their roles. Public relations specialists can respond to general inquiries and provide basic background, but experts on the issue must be identified to respond to more in-depth questions. Media training may be necessary to get some spokespeople up to speed. "It doesn't do any good to have the person who is most knowledgeable if they can't convey that information," Dr. Golab said.

In addition, limit the number of people making official statements. "You want to convey a limited number of very consistent messages," she explained. "If there are too many people delivering those messages, consistency and focus may be lost."

Individuals looking for assistance with spokesperson training can contact the Public Relations Society of America ( or the International Association of Business Communicators (

Since news of a crisis might be received by anyone at any level of an organization, the team must develop communication trees that dictate how information will flow. The team should identify stakeholders and audiences, keeping contact information for each group.

When a crisis occurs, assessing its magnitude is the first step. A situation is considered a crisis if it interferes with the normal operation of the organization, damages an organization's positive reputation or bottom line, or results in government or media scrutiny. "Separate the wheat from the chaff and don't overreact," Dr. Golab advised.

If a response is necessary, take time to choose an appropriate method of communication. "You need to seriously consider the nature of the message and its importance to the person to whom you are conveying it, when you decide how you are going to bring that information across," Dr. Golab said. As an example of a bad choice, she points to companies that announce large layoffs via e-mail, not the best way to convey sensitive information.

After picking the method of communication, the next step is to repeat a limited number of messages, delivering all the bad news at one time. Similar to taking a bad tasting medicine, get it over with and follow it up with something that tastes better. And never just refuse to respond. The words "no comment" only raise suspicion and don't contribute a positive image.

Monitoring communication is the final step, recording who says what, to whom, and when.

An effective communication plan can make all the difference in the world. "Perception can be just as damaging as reality. It doesn't matter how well you resolve that crisis. If you haven't communicated that resolution, the perception is you haven't fixed the problem," Dr. Golab said.

So what should be done about the misquoted association president? "Ask the president to clarify that this was his/her personal opinion but not the opinion of the association, and to call the reporter and request a correction," Dr. Golab advised. The association may officially indicate that it is investigating the situation and will provide appropriate commentary when more information is available.

Working with the media

  • Write a press release to summarize your positions and actions.
  • Don't shoot from the hip.
  • Be truthful. Don't cover up facts, don't avoid or mislead the press or the public.
  • Don't allow the spokesperson(s) or anyone else to be quoted, except on known facts.
  • Consider hosting a news conference if you get a large number of requests.
  • Be cooperative and tactful. Let the media know who to contact as your spokesperson(s).
  • Don't avoid the media. If information is not available, tell them so.
  • Emphasize the positive.
  • Be prepared for a difficult time and do not lose your temper. An outburst or angry reply can undo years of good will with the press and public.