ITL #356   Crisis management: a holding statement won’t hold for long

6 months, 1 week ago


What good is a holding statement in an age when people want quick fixes, instant answers and rapid responses? By Gerry McCusker.

Let’s get this right out here upfront: The classic crisis holding statement doesn’t ‘hold’ for long in modern crises.


As a result the term, if not the entire practice, needs to be redefined or renamed for something more effective and productive. That is if your brand, company or department wants to be seen to be relevant to – and influential in – any emerging crisis narratives.


The basic problem is that the holding statement has historically been an interim notice; almost a generic space filler until companies had something meatier to publish on the crisis. Indeed, the Business Continuity Management Institute opines that a ‘holder’ (my monicker) is an “…initial statement designed to help control the message to the public immediately following an incident.” The notion of a holding statement emanates from a time when, well, you almost had time during a crisis to undertake due diligence before making a meaningful pronouncement.


An old tactic in a new paradigm

So, is it still okay for crisis-hit companies to acknowledge without any useful knowledge?


Today, with a myriad of crisis commentators, informers, opportunists, pundits, speculators and spoilers rushing in to populate the evolving crisis narrative often within minutes, the idea that you can issue a media missive that temporarily ‘controls’ the crisis commentary is an appealing but Pollyannaish concept. In truth, it’s a practice from an old media paradigm and – like many practices/practitioners of its vintage – it’s rather inept for today’s emergency and disaster responses.


When people bandy the term about, we suspect their grasp of crisis management and crisis communications may not be quite as contemporary as it needs to be.


But, we see it again and again in the live, interactive crisis simulations we run at The Drill; practitioners of near-every discipline sagely quip that ‘we should issue a holding statement. Almost as soon as they’ve published a ‘holder’ live in our online media silos, up pops a new message strand or crisis threat which renders the hold of the ‘holder’ wholly hopeless.


You see, the problem in the new media environs is that people want/demand quick fixes, instant answers and rapid responses. So, how long can you expect a holding statement to last when affected audiences are online hungry for help. A whole morning, two hours, or just 30 minutes?


Holding for what?

And what are you aiming to hold, exactly? Expectations? Pressures? Time?


Maybe you’re attempting to put a hold on criticism? Good luck with that; a real time critique of your crisis response is par for the course within modern PR disasters.


I suspect many clients think that a ‘holder’ will allow them to verify, get approval, respond, not commit, appear engaged, dig around, or find inspiration. Some are still looking to hold scrutiny off. Not necessarily fend it off, but to signal they’re aware of the problem but can’t provide specifics.


Others are not saying much until many other crisis influencers – legals, C-suite, compliance teams or shareholder groups – decide what they’ll let the firm publish or pronounce. And all that takes time.


Time you just don’t have under modern crisis conditions.


Some ‘hold’ while debating whether to issue a ‘workable’ statement early, or the ‘perfect’ statement later (I know which one we advocate for!)


Many companies think they’re doing well if they can issue a holding statement, say, in the first 2-4 hours of a crisis. In truth, your gratification-hungry audiences will readily listen to those who have fresher, newer updates (even if uninformed) and who are filling the crisis void with suppositions and speculations since you published your ‘holder’ some hours ago.


Whether you’re holding or helping (which term works harder for you during a crisis?) we advise our clients to always consider the information needs of their crisis audiences when mayhem descends.


Narrative relevance

Perhaps it’s time we remembered that in crisis we’re in competition for relevance, which is often determined by how recently you’ve published on a topic. Relevance = recency (as far as the evolving crisis narrative and image-based perceptions games go).


And just as a week is a long time in politics, an afternoon can seem like an age on Twitter if a scandal-scorched company fails to publish! So, when a brand only ‘holds’, they become irrelevant to the crisis narrative. And that can be very bad for confidence, trust and reputation.


One of my big misgivings is that the holding statement is a selfish tactic when a crisis hits; if the most important thing in modern crisis is communication (as the President of The International Emergency Management Society, Harald Drager, has himself said), then periodic or perfunctory publishing is actually about you, rather than them (i.e. the stakeholders affected by the issue).


Crisis-hit communities crave quality information and if you’re ‘holding out’ with some or other deliberations they’ll perceive you as less relevant to what they expect and in fact, need.


Communication, communication, communication

Now, of course the nature, scale and impact of a crisis (how it’s affecting critical or vulnerable stakeholders) should determine the nature, depth and value of any pronouncements any business should be making to its audiences.


Just remember: Communication is the most important factor in any crisis, and audiences are hungry for information, insight and information that helps them in their plight.


The spirit of any communique should ideally be helpful, revealing and supportive so that it positions your brand or business as relevant and valuable to affected groups.


Helpful, revealing and supportive – while I mull on the best term that encapsulates all of those qualities, can I ask that you weave them into your next Information, Position, Update or Progress statement. At least that will give crisis-affected constituents something to really hold on to.





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The Author

Gerry McCusker

Gerry McCusker is a PR analyst, author, founder and owner of Crisis Simulation Software, The Drill crisis simulator.

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