Tips for communicating through crisis: Navigating tense times

Alaskans are in the middle of a big, messy debate right now. Tempers are flaring, emotions are running high, and public discourse has become testy. It’s tense with a capital “t”.

This dynamic makes for a tough environment in which to communicate. When the state is embroiled in a heated discussion (and that’s using a polite term), it is wise for organizations to pause and rethink their usual messages. For example, sharing celebratory social media posts when target audiences are anxious and angry is a recipe for disaster.

As professional communicators, what advice can we lend to companies and organizations about when and if to engage? If it is not advisable to “take a side,”, what other options are available?

Blueprint Alaska tapped the collective expertise of some of the state’s most seasoned public relations practitioners, asking for their counsel. Names are being omitted to allow for more candid discussion. Here is what they had to say:

On timing:

“Share what you know, when you know it. Don’t wait to communicate until you have every question answered.”

“If you have to make changes, make sure your staff are in the know and don’t read about it in the paper first. Also, make sure your partners hear it from you, not the news.”

On listening:

“Commit to listening, two-way communication, and regular updates. It’s okay to say you don’t know something and that you are committed to sharing updates as you have them. Be sure to follow through.”

On whether to choose sides:

“The current political climate is very segmented and polarized. Taking a public stance has the ability to tap into audience passion, but also has the ability to inadvertently cut your audience in half if you are seen as being ‘for’ or ‘against’ one tribe or another. Separate personal beliefs from your organization’s purpose.“

“I’m on the board of a small, apolitical local arts nonprofit, and was asked what our group should do about the change in funding for the state arts council. Because our organization only relies on the council for a tiny amount of our funding, the downsides of speaking out far outweighed any possible benefit, and would have dragged us into a political fight that we had no reason to be in. We stayed out of it to insulate our group from the story.”

“For public-facing organizations, there’s a fine line between remaining neutral in deference to the multiple viewpoints held by your stakeholders, and not taking a public position on an issue that critically affects what your organization stands for. It would be easy to see this a as ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation when considering whether or how to lend your organization’s voice to the conversation.”

Staying out of it? Some options:

“You can still be a positive influence by focusing on what your organization values and leading with that. Positive statements about what you value and what you stand for make it clear where your organization’s heart is without criticizing any particular viewpoint. Stating ‘here’s who we are, whom we serve, and what we believe in,’ conveys a steadiness of purpose that can be reassuring to constituents when the conversation around you is divisive.”

Jumping into the fray?

“Have a clear and concise call to action so audiences know what is being asked of them.”

On engaging employees:  

“Don’t forget your internal audience – your employees. Share the public message with them first. And, be mindful that they’re feeling the effects of what’s happening around them, perhaps very directly. Personalize a positive message for them from the organization’s leadership that acknowledges external uncertainties and reassures them that the organization is poised to face any resulting challenges. Remind them that diverse viewpoints and approaches, such as those within your community – and even within your own organization – are of value and contribute to creative problem solving and resiliency.”

On tone:

“Be mindful of tone – focus on strength-based messaging versus a doom and gloom message.”

“Take the anger out of your message. Emotion is fine, anger is not. Remain professional.”

It’s getting hot in here: Alaska communicators can drive cool-headed debate

By Michelle Egan, guest contributor

When temperatures are breaking record highs and fires are burning across the state, people get irritable and yearn for ways to cool off.  The unbearable heat is not just outside—it’s in our homes and offices and workplaces. We’re facing critical decisions on the state budget and the Permanent Fund Dividend. We must find ways to drop the temperature so we can approach our policy issues in a thoughtful and cool-headed fashion.

Civil discourse is the fire suppressant we need to drop on Alaska’s flaring tempers.  It’s essential that we advocate for debate that is respectful, honest and productive.  Screaming at lawmakers, discounting other opinions, mocking protestors and telling half-truths does nothing to advance productive communication and problem solving.

As communicators who believe in the power of our democracy, we have a duty to insist on civility.  Right now, Alaskans are dealing with each other through yelling and name calling and mocking; we can do so much better.

Here are some fire-dousing tips for social media from the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.

  • Check for accuracy-don’t spread information unless you know it’s true.
  • Avoid insults and name calling-your mother was right about this one.
  • Seek info from different perspectives-find sources with different views and study up before you launch.
  • Walk away-there’s no reason to respond to every comment that angers you.
  • Spread respect-model decorum and show others how it’s done.


Words of wisdom from a recovering press secretary

Press secretaries are making headlines, and it is timely to revisit some tricks of the trade for anyone considering taking on such a challenging role. And it is challenging, but with potential to be incredibly rewarding. In fact, I wish all public relations practitioners would work a stint as a press secretary to fully immerse themselves in the 24/7 media relations grind. If you think you’re up to it, take some real-life advice from someone who has served in this role more than once.

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Five tips for writing opinion pieces that get published

When you have something to say, an opinion/editorial (often referred to as an “op-ed”) can be the ideal vehicle for sharing your message. Op-eds allow people at theheart of an issue to further explain it, or provide context that traditional, fact-basedjournalism may lack. Op-eds are meant to inform and, often, persuade readers to think or act a certain way. In today’s noisy, polarized environment, changing minds or motivating people to act is a heavy lift. Op-eds must be skillfully crafted to haveeven a chance of meeting that lofty objective. For skilled writers, putting opinions to paper is easy, with words effortlessly flowing from mind to keyboard. For others, trying to make a convincing argument, often in fewer than 700 words, is one of the toughest assignments they will undertake. It can seem overwhelming, but breaking the process down into steps makes it easier.

Here are five tips for writing op-eds that get published:

1. Take a side: This is the opinion section. No one gets away with straddling the fence on an issue in an op-ed; the whole point is to present a point of view. Decide what you most want readers to know or learn, and figuratively punch them in the face with it. Be direct, and take a clear, unambiguous position on a relevant, interesting topic. Not only is candor more attractive to readers, but editors are more likely to publish op-eds that take bold or unexpected positions on the issues of the day. Conversely, op-eds that ramble on or struggle to make a point until four paragraphs in face long odds of ever showing up in print.Read More

Every problem has a solution if you know what’s wrong

I once worked with a client who felt like their approach to external communication wasn’t working. They were unsure as to why, much less how to fix it. Their public relations efforts just felt “off.”

This is not a unique problem. At some point, every business or organization will realize something is not working when it comes to telling their stories or trying to make meaningful connections in the community. This is especially true for those in growth mode. Fortunately, a strategic approach can help get to the bottom of these issues.

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Effective communication in times of change: Tools for success

“The only constant is change.”

This statement is true in many aspects of life, but especially so in the workplace. Large-scale changes are the norm at companies and organizations these days, with the workplace being continually transformed by progress and technology. For employees working at companies where change is coming, or even rumored to be coming, it can be a stressful experience.

It doesn’t need to be. While employers can never alleviate every employee’s fear of change, well-executed communications go a long way to building trust and making sure it’s business as usual at work.Read More

Why Crisis Communications Plans are Essential

On November 30, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake shook Southcentral Alaska, shutting down power, landlines, and several major roads. However, fewer than 24 hours later, Anchorage was back on its feet, with stores reopened, Internet available, and residents able to communicate and even commute. I even enjoyed a beverage from my favorite espresso drive-through fewer than five hours after the ground heaved and buckled.

Crises like natural disasters beg the question: why do some businesses and organizations recover quickly, while others don’t? How does a large-scale company like GCI organize and mobilize its workers and technicians to get communities back online in so short a time? The answer is a well-rehearsed crisis communication plan. When everyone in an organization knows exactly how to react in a given situation, recovery is easier and more organized.

Creating a plan need not be a long and arduous ordeal. Putting together a simple list of directions helps employees know their company is prepared for any sort of disaster. And crisis communication plan isn’t just for natural disasters. For instance, if a company higher-up makes an embarrassing faux pas, protocol is in place for handling it. This can mean anything from rules about social media posts, to responsibilities for handling questions asked by journalists.

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The Power of “I don’t know”

People like to appear knowledgeable. Everyone enjoys being able to contribute to a discussion, even when they don’t know all the facts. This is evident in skimming the comments section of any online news article.

But what about when not speaking just for yourself, but instead for a company or an organization? Lying is unethical, plain and simple, and should never be a course of action when faced with a crisis situation. So, what do you do when, say, a reporter asks for information you do not have? Do you attempt to redirect to a different topic, or act as though you know an answer when you definitely do not?

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Three Rules for Ethical Communicators

September is ethics month for members of the Public Relations Society of America, the public relations industry’s professional trade organization. Even though ethical practices are mandatory every day, the month is set aside to focus specifically on how communicators can meet high ethical standards when the rules seem to change quickly.

In that spirit, Blueprint Alaska has compiled a checklist for communicators who insist on upholding the core values of ethical practice of public relations, including advocacy. Read More

Making the case for advocacy

What is advocacy, anyway? And why should a company or organization care about it?

Let’s use some examples to make the case.

A company finds itself in the middle of a public policy debate due to a piece of legislation that will seriously impact its business. Company managers try to rally employees to the cause, but are baffled when they receive a lukewarm reception.

An organization is dealing with an issue that could negatively impact its reputation, jeopardizing the bottom line. Usually content to stay off the radar, the company doesn’t know where to start, and reaches out to colleagues for help. The organization’s leaders are surprised by the lack of support they receive.

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In our social media driven world, practice makes (almost) perfect

Recently, I was asked to participate in a crisis drill for a client. During these drills, companies practice for an emergency by pretending to deal with a real one, and incorporating lessons learned into their crisis plans. It’s an excellent way to keep skills sharp and ensure that everyone knows what to do in the event of a real emergency.

Crisis training and drills are nothing new- companies have been doing them for years. On the public relations side, practitioners have worked to master their communication skills to be ready for a bona fide crisis: sample press releases are drafted, media contact lists developed, and interviews rehearsed. What struck me during this most recent drill was the introduction of social media, meaning a simulated (read: not real) social media blitz resulting from the drill’s scenario. Just like social media has disrupted the news business by empowering citizens to report and discuss their own news, the injection of social media into the crisis drill was also extremely disruptive. I loved it.

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