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.”

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