Even in the frenzy of a crisis, you should seek to achieve specific objectives relevant to the overall goals of your organization in what you say and do.

Your message platform can be built long before the hint of any crisis. Some people use the term “message points,” though the phrase “message platform” is preferable because it conjures the image of a solid area on which you can stand. The platform is built with simple declarative sentences that reveal the central mission, overarching goals and/or purposes of your organization.

The basic message platform of a blood bank, for example, is to provide a safe and dependable supply of blood and blood products. Within that statement are two planks of a message platform: safe and dependable. Whatever the circumstances, executives of the blood bank can use “safety” or “dependability” as the foundation for answering questions about the organization. Challenged on the fees hospitals and clinics are charged for blood freely donated, executives can talk about the cost of the latest technology and the salaries of the finest technicians paid to ensure the safety of the blood supply. Challenged on the continuing call for donors, executives can talk about the need for dependability in the face of increasing demand for blood and blood products for emergencies and for the sophisticated, life-saving operations routinely performed. Every organization ought to have three to four basic planks to their platform.

To these basic planks can be added those required by the particular crisis. For crises that involve investigators or enforcement officers, the plank “working with authorities” can be added. For crises that harm people, animals or the environment, the plank “we’re sorry,” “we sympathize” or “we empathize” for those injured is suitable.

Another method for planning what you need to know and to share can be summarized as the five Cs:

  • Confirmation
  • Compassion
  • Containment
  • Cooperation
  • Correction

Confirmation simply means reporting what you know and can share when you know it. Compassion means demonstrating feelings for the victims, their families and their communities. Containment means reporting actions the organization has taken or is taking to contain the crisis. Cooperation means pledging your involvement to work with those agencies investigating the incident. Correction reports action, whether anticipated or already taken, to ensure that the incident doesn’t happen again.

This is not an attempt to reduce communicating in a crisis to a formula, but it does demonstrate that much of what may be said during a crisis can be anticipated and prepared for before the crisis occurs. The message planks can be prepared for your greatest vulnerabilities and rehearsed by those most likely to be spokespeople for your organization. In a very real sense, no one will be unprepared for an ambush interview if they know and can use the organization’s message platform. The information sought by the media, or anyone for that matter, can be given on your terms, or more accurately, using your terms.

Having a platform and people prepared to speak on it has gained importance in the age of the “amateur journalist”; that is, the person with a smart phone or flip-cam who records an event then distributes the pictures via a growing number of social media platforms on the Internet. The demand for immediate response to a question no longer is the purview of big media. To paraphrase a comment made by Horton the elephant, “An ambush is an ambush no matter how small.”

A message platform assists in communicating with all publics, not just the media. Your employees, their families, neighbors, stockholders, government agencies and other stakeholders will all depend on your organization to provide accurate, timely information. Having a platform in place to help frame what will be said over the various vehicles used to reach those publics can improve communication efficiency and effectiveness.

Excerpt from Crisis Management and Communication: How to Gain and Maintain Control, third edition by Dan P. Millar, Ph.D., and Larry L. Smith.