Let’s face it, navigating a crisis can feel like being caught in a dense fog. Confusion breeds distrust, and misinformation spreads faster than a viral TikTok. In this high-stakes environment, one crucial element separates leaders from those left stumbling – transparency is your crisis communications lifeline.

There’s an old misconception that crisis communications means sweeping something under the rug. I’ve seen the devastating impact of people practicing that idea and also the remarkable power of transparency in restoring trust and mitigating damage.

A crisis can erupt in an instant. It can shatter public confidence and threaten your brand’s reputation – and bottom line. The temptation to retreat may be strong when faced with such a challenge. This would be a mistake because silence fuels speculation and erodes trust. By prioritizing transparency, you regain control of the narrative and demonstrate your commitment to accountability. 

So, how do you translate transparency into concrete action when a crisis strikes?  As I’ve navigated reputation-impacting events on behalf of clients, here are five steps you should follow.

  1. Communicate swiftly and proactively. Don’t wait for the fog to blur your sight. Be the first to address the situation and do so with a clear and concise statement. Acknowledge the issue, express empathy for those affected, outline your initial action plan, and when another update will be provided.
  2. Tell the Truth. Even when it’s difficult, don’t sugarcoat or be dishonest about the situation. If there’s a misstep, acknowledge it. Explaining what went wrong and your plan to fix it demonstrates your humanity and commitment to improvement.
  3. Keep messaging clear and consistent. Your designated spokesperson should be the only person communicating with the public about the issue. Having a single, designated spokesperson prevents confusion and ensures consistency in messaging across all platforms. You will tailor your message to resonate with different stakeholders and channels – a tweet won’t have the same wording or tone as an email, for example, but it will convey the same message.
  4. Have (and use) open channels of communication, regularly. Ideally, you’ve prepared to face a crisis and already identified your channels for disseminating information as well as guidelines for each; and now is the time to activate them.  Whether it’s through email, social media, press conferences (person and/or virtual), direct mail, and/or a dedicated webpage, etc. open the communication channel(s) with your message. Equally important as having these channels is responding to questions or comments in a timely and genuine manner. (Follow your crisis communications plan for all messaging and responses.)
  5. Focus on the facts. Saving perhaps the most important for last: no matter what you do, stick to the facts. Whenever possible provide verifiable information and evidence to support your statements. Avoid assumptions, speculation, and hypothetical scenarios, as this will only fuel uncertainty. Don’t shy away from saying you’re investigating or gathering information if that is what’s happening at the time. Honesty builds trust. In today’s digital world, it’s not “if” but “when” the truth will be exposed.

Sometimes the lack of transparency is the crisis. 

When Kensington Palace – which handles communications for the Prince and Princess of Wales, among other members of the royal family – released a statement on January 17, 2024, to share that Catherine, Princess of Wales had been admitted to a hospital the previous day for “planned abdominal surgery” and wouldn’t be returning to public duties until after Easter, the public had questions. LOTS of questions. 

Even though in the statement Kensington Palace said it would, “only provide updates on Her Royal Highness’ progress when there is significant new information to share,” as time went on the Palace’s silence only fueled speculation and then conspiracy theories.

It was just over two months after the initial announcement on March 22, 2024, that Princess Catherine announced in a video message she had been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing preventative treatment. By this time, the Palace had lost control of the narrative and the trust of many. It also now faces an even more steep uphill battle than if it had been more transparent from the beginning.

Transparency in your crisis communications doesn’t eliminate difficulties, but it does allow you to navigate them with purpose and integrity. By being open and honest, you take control of the narrative and minimize further damage.

In the high-stakes world of crisis communication, transparency isn’t a luxury – it’s your lifeline. By prioritizing honesty, open communication, and a commitment to the truth, you can navigate a crisis and emerge a trusted leader.