As the tragic story of Saturday’s Shoreham Airshow crash continues to unfold, the crisis communications response of all the authorities involved – from the British Air Display Association and the Civil Aviation Authority to Sussex Police – is being tested to the full. 

Everyone wants to know everything immediately when a disaster like this happens, yet there is a need to respect those most closely affected – Sussex Police have quite rightly requested that people consider the victims’ families before posting videos of the crash. And it can be dangerous to provide the media with unverified accounts that will possibly prove to have been inaccurate once the results of official investigations are known. 

As PR experts, it is part of our role to help clients prepare for crises of all kinds – it’s something that all responsible brands and organisations need to address. Crisis communications planning means putting in place the systems and procedures that will help ensure you keep your stakeholders (from customers to employees, shareholders and suppliers, to name just a few) informed in the event of any incident within your sphere of operation that may negatively impact them.

While of course there will be a team managing the actual crisis (say, for example, a food manufacturer’s products become contaminated and need to be withdrawn from sale), the crisis communications team will also be at the front line, managing the flow of information, ensuring that everyone knows what’s going on, and that the media is provided with up-to-the minute information throughout the period of disruption.

What do we look at when planning crisis communications? Starting with a thorough examination of the likely scenarios, we ask what could possibly happen and what could be the cause of such events (i.e. the truth behind the crisis). We then look at the likely reactions by audience, ask what breaking media coverage might look like and ascertain what each of the key audiences will be looking for in terms of information.

It’s crucial to have the right team in place to handle crisis communications – the campaign must be fronted by someone from the very top of the organisation who is prepared to be the key spokesperson; but the public, and therefore the media, will also be looking for reassurance from subject-specific experts. Everyone in the team must have the necessary skills and experience to brief the media and deal with potentially gruelling interviews. 

Breaking down your audiences and understanding how they access information will allow you to ensure that you’re using the right media, which in turn will help shape your messaging and tone of voice. 

That’s just the start, of course. Should the crisis actually hit, the theory must be fit to serve a real-life scenario – which, of course, is the true test of any plan.

If you’d like to know more visit our crisis PR workshop page.