4 Tips to Create an Inclusive Crisis Comms Plan

May 2021
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When talking about DE&I and crisis planning, a colleague of mine jokingly said, “Often our crisis is DE&I.” 

And she’s right. If 2020 taught us nothing else, then it is that scrambling to ensure our brand or business is “woke” in the middle of racial injustice can come across as inauthentic at best and harmful at worst. Our mishandled statements too often highlight the differences between intent and impact, harming the people we claim to care most about while also hurting our brand in the process.

DE&I work is about the experience of being human. It is about acknowledging our differences, ensuring people belong and working toward solutions that are just and equitable. 

So, what does this mean for crisis management? Our job is to ensure our crisis communication is inclusive and centers around the voices that need to be included, but it can be challenging to know where to start. Here’s what I’ve learned from my own experiences (and missteps) as a communications director at the University of Kentucky, and my own journey in DE&I work.

Name the issue. 

Determine what the crisis is truly about and use precise language in your message. Shortly after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others, institutions, businesses and brands wanted to make statements in solidarity with the Black community, condemning racism in all its forms and offering support and resources. 

However, too many companies failed to clearly name the police violence perpetrated explicitly against Black people, as well as the systemic racism inherent in many of our U.S. institutions. Failure to name the issues facing Black Americans demonstrates to others that you aren’t sincere in your efforts. If we can’t use the necessary words, how can people believe we will take the necessary action?

Instead of starting a statement with “In light of recent events,” specifically name the recent event you are referencing, who it most affects, why you care, and what you plan to do about it.

Build the right table. 

In many organizations, it is not safe (or welcomed) for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) to share how a crisis is specifically impacting their work, life or community. 

When we are setting up our crisis plans, we need to be proactive about making space to include historically underrepresented groups. Sometimes, this will mean having people outside your company on standby who can be called, consulted and compensated for the best way to approach your current crisis. It’s not just about inviting the right people to the table; it’s about making sure you’re building the right-sized table from the beginning.

Be transparent when you get it wrong. 

Inevitably, once a crisis communication plan is in place, you realize something is missing only after you’ve made a mistake. When this happens — because it will — own your failure. 

Sure, your intent may have been good, but that does not negate that the impact of a mismanaged statement or action caused harm. Name this. Own it. Commit to doing better in the future and get clear on exactly what that looks like for you and your team.

Couch your message in context. 

Companies will often share their renewed commitment to their core values without also addressing their problematic history. If a brand comes out in support of LGBTQ rights but ignores the fact that a senior leader excluded trans women from all advertising campaigns five years ago, you need to provide some context for why and how things have changed. 

We often see this struggle in higher education when institutions with a long and complicated history of discrimination begin to discuss their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Sometimes, the only way we can move forward toward equity is by acknowledging the past and how we got here.

In the end, we must be willing to get it wrong in order to get it right. A crisis plan should continue to evolve as language does. We often make the best decisions we can with the information we have. The more we understand DE&I and its place in everything we do, the better decisions we will be able to make for ourselves and the organizations we represent.  

Return to Current Issue Crisis Management: Expecting the Unexpected | May 2021
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