1 Communication is About Perception
A crisis can be as much about perception as reality—indeed, in a crisis perception can become reality.
2 Never Say Nothing
In a crisis you have to say something. Silence is never desirable and often not possible.
3 Watch Your Tone
Because a crisis is about perception, details such as the tone and phrasing of your communications matter. In a crisis, communications are deeply scrutinized and the readers can be under a great deal of stress and thus prone to misunderstanding. Always err on the side of formality and politeness. Remember that any letter or email you send is a tool for persuading the recipient as well as to make a record. Therefore, write accordingly.
4 Know Your Audience
Know your intended audience and what they need to hear from you. Do employees need to be reassured that their jobs are safe? Do investors want to be reassured? What do customers need to hear? Suppliers? Be sure to use language appropriate to the intended audience.
5 Tell the Truth and Tell It Clearly
Communicate knowledgeably, honestly, and clearly. Crisis is chaotic and emotionally overwhelming. Your message should be the opposite. Communicate what happened, why it happened, and what you will do to remediate the harm and prevent it from happening again. Communicate with a few key message points that are clear and supportable. Don’t say what you don’t know. Knowledge is power and you must take the time to learn and understand the facts. Otherwise it is impossible to state them clearly.
6 Say You’re Sorry
If necessary, don’t be afraid to apologize, and do so from the heart, without equivocation or self-serving statements.
7 Write with Care
Write with care. You should assume your letter or email may be read by people other than the recipient and that they may not be familiar with the context in which it is being sent. It is always helpful to start with a summary of the issue. This can be as simple as something like “As you know I have been out of the office for the last week…” or in more formal letters can stretch to several paragraphs restating a history of prior communications. Including context allows you to frame the narrative in a manner you believe to be appropriate.
Strive for precision and clarity. Always identify who and what you are referring to. Do not inadvertently speak in absolutes and avoid inadvertently speaking as though you know things you do not. Never use shorthand phrases, sarcasm, and jokes or inside references that may be misconstrued.
8 Take Your Time—But Not Too Much
A written communication is a piece of craft art and cannot be rushed. Take the time to write carefully. Always reread your draft, preferably after letting it sit for a bit. For important communications, have someone else review it. At the same time, remember that a communication too delayed loses much of its power. A letter sent a week after the fact is not the same as one sent the next day.
9 Sweat the Small Stuff
Pay attention to the details. Have you written the “Re:” line of your email with care? Are you sending it to and from the right email address? Have you used the proper signature block? Have you removed the metadata from your letter? A carelessly named attachment can undermine the hours of work put into a careful email.