When a crisis occurs — and it is WHEN, not IF — businesses are often faced with incredibly difficult decisions in a highly pressurized and emotional time. It can be tempting to be overly cautious — say as little as possible to avoid any potential legal challenges in the future. I’m not a lawyer, but from a legal perspective that’s probably very good counsel.

But from a reputation and long-term business impact perspective — not so much. The legally correct thing is often not the same as the ethically correct thing. Nor is it necessarily the right thing for the long term financial stability of the business.

What you avoid in protecting yourself from potential legal fees and court costs, you end up spending trying to recover from a bruised reputation that directly hits your bottom line in lost sales, lost customers, employee retention, and morale.

This is why having a crisis communications plan is so critical.

The golden rule of crisis management is threefold:

  1. Say it fast.
  2. Say it all.
  3. Say it truthfully.

It’s nearly impossible to achieve that without a solid crisis plan in place. Some of the key components of a solid crisis plan include:

  1. Define the crisis response team. Know ahead of time who needs to be contacted in the wake of a crisis. What are their specific roles, and where should the team meet? These seem like simple decisions, but they can be time consuming and difficult while you are managing a crisis.
  2. Crisis scenarios and holding statements. Think of your worst case scenarios and pre-plan a statement that could be slightly modified and released publicly while you are gathering important facts. The longer you wait to tell your story, the sooner someone else will start filling in the silence with their (incorrect) version of it.
  3. Fact gathering and media monitoring. Have a mechanism and process already in place for gathering the facts of the situation, responding to social and traditional media inquiries, and employee questions.
  4. Spokesperson. Know who the key spokesperson(s)will be and be sure she or he is media trained before a crisis hits.
  5. Reporting standards. Agree ahead of time how often the crisis team should be reporting on updates and have tools already developed so that employees can track inbound calls and questions about the situation.

Finally, no matter what kind of crisis occurs, be sure that when the dust settles you hold a postmortem so that your organization can learn from the event, improve on the process for next time, and make any operational or cultural changes to address the cause of the crisis.

By all means, you need to have legal counsel at the table through any crisis. But your communications strategy should be informed, not directed, by their perspective.