How to Fill the Information Gap During a Crisis

During a crisis, everyone is riveted. We keep watching the news or scrolling through our Twitter feeds, desperate for a new morsel of information.

Has the oil spill been contained? The cause of the crash determined? The source of tainted meat identified?

If we were on a television show, new developments would break every couple of minutes, ensuring a steady stream of thrills. But in real life, it’s murkier; progress comes slowly, and initial information may be unclear or inaccurate.

Innuendo swirls and serious mistakes are made, including (in the wake of the recent Boston Marathon bombings) websites such as Reddit erroneously fingering the wrong suspect.

If you find your brand in the throes of a crisis, how do you “fill the gap” in coverage to ensure reporters and the public are getting enough information to satisfy their insatiable curiosity – while steering clear of risky, unsubstantiated nuggets?

Here are a few strategies that I’ve found useful:

Communicate on a regular schedule

The media thrive on predictability; even though they’re on a 24/7 schedule, it’s important for them to know they’ll receive updates at particular times so they can plan for “live shots” (in the case of TV) or count down to updates (“only four minutes until the company president shares the latest information with us”).

Of course, if relevant new information comes to light, you should share it immediately. But even if you don’t have new information, journalists and the public will appreciate knowing that you’ll be checking in with them every hour or so (whether it’s through updates on your website, a press conference or a tweet).

Be clear on what you know – and what you don’t

Don’t make optimistic guesses or speculate. And never shade the truth. Save yourself a lot of trouble and explain clearly what you know, what you don’t, and your plan for getting to the bottom of the situation.

Go behind the scenes

When there’s no new information to share, you can often fill airtime in a positive way by “going behind the scenes.”

Depending on the nature of the problem, you may be able to provide facility tours to the media to show them how operations are run and the procedures you have in place.

Or you can provide access to people who are working hard on the job (for instance, an interview with a competent worker who is an expert at cleaning up oil spills).

The key is to provide context and show that you’re hard at work on addressing the situation.

Provide your own experts

When political candidates release a new policy initiative, they’ll often provide reporters with a list of experts who can speak knowledgeably about it (often people who have been consulted on the plan beforehand).

This can be an invaluable help for journalists who may struggle to locate an expert on the minutiae of a particular issue. It’s also great for getting your brand’s message out.

Making it easy for the media to talk to a favorable (or at least neutral) expert is far better than rolling the dice and seeing who they come up with from a cursory Google search.

You can prepare for many potential crises by asking “What’s the worst case scenario?” and identifying experts on that subject who are smart and rational.

Prior to a crisis, you can tap them for advice and guidance; during a crisis, they may be voices of reason the media can interview.

Know when to keep quiet

It’s also important to keep in mind that if a media crisis is swirling and you’re not involved, it may be best to say nothing at all. It’s not possible (and may not be desirable) to shut down all social media activity during every single crisis; things happen around the globe all the time.

But if something major occurs and the world is riveted, even a banal and normally innocuous tweet (such as notifying customers about a sale) may seem insensitive. So when news breaks, think through your upcoming mix of social media posts; you may want to hold off on some or all.

Communicating in the midst of a crisis is never easy. But if you recognize the insatiable demand for information, emanating both from the media and the public, and try to fill that void with relevant information, you’re more likely to drown out harmful rumors and speculation.

“Feeding the beast” in the midst of a crisis may not seem like a priority – but if you want to keep the public calm and emerge with your reputation intact once the situation is resolved, it’s essential.

This post originally appeared on the Sparksheet website on May 2, 2013.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.