From workplace accidents to severe weather and product recalls, no business is immune from crisis situations — including the HVACR sector. Manufacturers, distributors, contractors, and stakeholders throughout the supply chain do their best to safeguard against such incidents. Yet even the most stringent procedures cannot insure against a crisis inflicting damage on a business’ operations or its reputation. As with many aspects of managing a business, advance consideration and planning can help minimize the consequences of a crisis.

A good place to start is by realizing the type of crises facing a business. Most crises fall into one of two categories: “sudden” or “smoldering.” As the name implies, a sudden crisis arises without warning. Industrial accidents, terrorism, workplace violence, and natural disasters are all examples of sudden crisis situations. There is little time to prepare in these situations, and as they are often perceived as situations inflicted on the business, they tend to receive public sympathy. In contrast, smoldering crisis events generally emerge over time and present problems not generally known that could generate negative sentiment if they become public. Examples of smoldering crisis situations include business concerns such as audit findings, board mismanagement, or a potential regulatory violation. A smoldering crisis may rapidly evolve into a sudden crisis. As opposed to sudden crises, these situations are rarely viewed positively.

Regardless of whether a crisis is sudden or smoldering, preparation is imperative. A crisis management plan can help manage either type of crisis. The plan should outline a strategy for assessing vulnerabilities, identify a central spokesperson to deliver all messages, and include specific messages that can be disseminated to stakeholders. While the details of a crisis management plan are beyond the scope of this column, every crisis management plan requires stakeholder communications.

When crafting crisis communications, three best practices can be applied to most situations. These are:

1. Tell the truth: Rarely are all of the facts readily available during a crisis. Trade secrets, confidentiality agreements, and legal issues often limit what can be disclosed. As such, it can be tempting to refrain from making any statement during a crisis situation. But evasiveness naturally breeds suspicion. While organizations should never speculate during a crisis, they can share the truth about what they are doing. For example, “While not all of the facts are clear, we are cooperating with first responders.”

The “why” plus “what” approach is a very useful technique for communicating without speculating or refraining from comment. Using this approach, spokespersons explain “why” they cannot elaborate and follow up with “what” they can share. For example: “While I can’t speculate about the root cause as research is still underway, what I can tell you is (approved statement).”

2. Tell it fast and with empathy: Not only is it important to tell the truth quickly, but it is important to be empathetic. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska is a good example of the damage that can arise when timeliness and empathy are lacking in communications. The organization’s former chief executive, Lawrence Rawl, waited an entire week to address media following the oil spill. When the executive did speak in a TV interview, he delivered a strong impression that he didn’t really care about the environmental impact of the disaster, committing a huge PR cardinal sin — lack of empathy.

More than 20 years later, former BP CEO Tony Hayward (google “Tony Hayward get my life back”) conducted a number of high-quality media interviews before lamenting halfway through a conversation with a reporter, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” His comment demonstrated a lack of sympathy for the 11 lives lost and the hundreds of jobs lost due to the incident. Unlike the Exxon leader’s interview, BP’s situation unfolded in the social media era, amplifying the damage of the negative PR as the unfortunate interview was shared digitally.

In any crisis situation, it is imperative to think like a customer and, just as importantly, to talk like a customer. This means putting oneself in the customer’s shoes and actively acknowledging customers’ fears and frustrations. In stark contrast to the corporate speak of a prepared statement, empathy acknowledges that the speaker feels and shares the customer’s pain. Effective crisis messages project empathy and concern while explaining clearly and succinctly what can be shared. The best examples also provide perspective by framing the issue in context: for example, “Each year, our operations produce XX without incident.”

3. Tell employees first: Despite all the efforts companies invest in developing messages for their website and official statements, a company’s employees are usually the most sought-after and trusted source of information. Thus, in crisis situations, it is they who will receive questions from customers, friends, and family about what’s “really” taking place. Employees must be a key audience in any crisis management plan. The plan should educate employees on the issue and provide clear information on how to direct inquiries to the appropriate spokesperson.

Whether sudden or smoldering, the crisis communications best practices outlined above, coupled with a crisis management plan, can help HVACR professionals and others in the energy sector navigate the challenge.

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