LAST UPDATED: 11 April 2022
How to Communicate When Things Go Wrong
As an event professional, you know what to do when a problem pops up, but what exactly are you supposed to say? Here's a 5-step guide to crisis communications.
Event organizers are highly adaptable professionals. When you’re in the business of producing experiences, you learn to expect the unexpected and roll with the punches. Yet, when things don’t go as planned, it can be tough to explain it all to those outside your team – your participants, your volunteers, your sponsors, and your local community.
As a PR professional, I’m no stranger to handling situations like these. Whenever our relationships with these key audiences are put at risk, we can classify it as a crisis.
You can probably think of some of the big ones: a medical emergency, a safety issue, a cancelation of the event. While certainly less dire, the small things can fall into this crisis category as well: medals not arriving in time for race day, running out of a certain t-shirt size, your registration website glitching.
As an event professional, you know what to do when a problem pops up, but what exactly are you supposed to say? How can you communicate truthful, transparent information in a way that will delight audiences instead of pissing them off more? Here are five questions to address in your communications about the incident that will have them hugging, not hurting the messenger.
1. What actually happened here?
Begin by sharing the latest information on this crisis. It’s important to summarize what’s going on. Include only confirmed details or facts. Don’t speculate. It can be helpful to approach this in a chronological format.
For example: “Last fall, we placed an order for our medals with the vendor we’ve used for many years. On Monday, we were informed that an equipment malfunction at the factory has caused a manufacturing delay. As a result of this delay, medals may not be available on race day.”
2. What did you do in advance to mitigate risk?
Let your audiences know how you tried to ensure this wouldn’t happen. If you actually didn’t have a plan in place or take any precautions, don’t say that you did. Be transparent that you weren’t prepared.
For example: “When we order our medals, shirts, and other items included with your registration, we are careful to confirm deadlines for on-time printing and delivery. We follow up with our vendors monthly for updates on production. We also place our order with two weeks of buffer in the event a small delay occurs.”
3. Are you sorry?
Apologize. Even if something isn’t directly your fault. It’s important to empathize with your audiences and let them know that you get it. No one wants unexpected issues to occur, especially ones that create a negative experience or feeling. Don’t be afraid to say sorry and to level with them.
For example: “While this issue was not in our control, we couldn’t be more sorry that your opportunity to receive a medal for your accomplishment is in jeopardy. We, like you, are endurance athletes and know that not having that special moment and memento would be disappointing.”
4. What are you doing right now to make it right?
Words aren’t enough. What actions are you taking at this moment to fix the issue? Share exactly your plans to rectify the situation in the short term.
For example: “We are continuing to monitor expected delivery dates of the medals, and will provide you with updates as we learn more. We are exploring other items that we can award you at the finish line in the event they do not arrive. We are also making preparations in the event we must mail them to you after the race – which we will do at no cost to you.”
5. What are you going to do in the future to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
Sure, you may have curbed the issue for now, but what steps are you taking to ensure the same problem doesn’t happen again? You may not have a ton of details to share, but pledge to update your audiences as a plan comes together and make good on that pledge when they do!
For example: “We are currently evaluating how we can avoid this happening in the future, and we promise to update you as soon as we have determined updated plans and procedures.”
Other tips, tricks, and thoughts on crisis communications
- Act fast. Crisis management is all about moving quickly despite stressful circumstances. Don’t make your audiences wait to hear from you.
- Appeal to your angriest audience member. You’ll likely have plenty of folks who are understanding of the issue at hand. Don’t design your message only for them. Be sure your communications are teed up to speak to the person who is most upset by the news.
- If you effed up, own it. You’re not fooling anyone and you’re only making things worse when you don’t take responsibility. Crisis communication isn’t about pointing blame at others. It’s about owning your role in a sticky situation, as small or large as it may be.
- If someone else effed up, keep it classy and civil. Naming names and making a stink are rarely effective ways to handle a crisis. Even if it would help take the heat off you, it’s not a cute look to put another business on blast in a public forum. If you indeed have a bone to pick, do that privately.
- Don’t wait to create a crisis communications plan. You can do this with your team or with the help of a PR professional. Having one in place can help you not only handle these problems when they pop up but also help you stop them from happening in the first place.