Crisis Communications: What to do when ‘Stuff’ Happens

Protecting your reputation is a matter of strategic planning.

March 27, 2013
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Stuff happens, and credit unions must be ready to respond with a crisis communication plan when it does, says Jeanne Ouellette, founder/principal of Winly Communications.

She addressed the 20th Annual CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council Conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Too often, leaders take on a “bunker mentality” when a crisis strikes, Ouellette says, hunkering down and withholding information from the press, staff, and members. Instead, leaders should “fill the information vacuum by helping to shape coverage of the crisis. Saying ‘no comment’ makes no sense. Spread the message that you care.”

“Transparency and honest communication are expected today,” she continues. “It’s a dialogue, not a monologue.”

While specific crises can’t be anticipated, types of mishaps can, such as a security breach. Ouellette advises developing scenario-based communication plans covering possible misfortunes.

“Pay attention to what’s happening within your credit union, and watch for outside events that could affect it,” she says. “Look within and look around. What could become a crisis?”

Also, recognize that the media has a right—and responsibility—to cover crises. “Acknowledge that fact and work effectively with your local media. Build equity with the media now—it will be too late after a crisis.”

Ouellette offers these crisis communication tips:

Don’t give a story legs. Have a crisis communication plan in place and respond during the same news cycle in which a crisis is reported.

Protect your credibility. Never say something you can't prove and, above all, never lie.

“That doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything,” Ouellette says. “But your reputation is your most valuable asset. Once you lose trust, it’s hard to regain it.”

Set the proper tone in your communications. If you’re calm and confident, you’ll come off better.

Argue with your lawyers. They’ll err on the side of avoiding litigation while you’ll likely side with members or employees. Find a compromise.

Know your stakeholders. You’ll need them during a crisis.

“It’s always better to have others advocate for you,” Ouellette says.

Centralize communications so you speak with one voice.

“That said, don’t forget your people,” she adds. “Member-facing staff are a critical link in crisis communications. Members will ask them what’s going on. Give staff something to say that’s consistent with your central communications.

“Reputation is a matter of perception. Protecting it is the result of strategic planning.”

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