after-data-breachDespite organizations’ best efforts to prevent data breaches, the unfortunate truth is there will always be hackers who can find a way in to even the most secure systems. If and when they do, the news media will call, and your organization will find itself involuntarily thrust into the media spotlight.

In recent months it’s happened to healthcare organizations Anthem and UCLA Health System, brokerage firm Scottrade, even the IRS – and these few incidents alone have affected millions of people.

Crisis communications is a complex and delicate operation. But following these five basic steps can help diminish the potential media fallout:

1. Rally the Troops
Immediately assemble your leadership team – the CEO, communications team, legal representation and other appropriate parties. Ensure everyone is fully briefed on the details of the problem and has their facts straight. Then develop the message(s) for the media that are acceptable to all involved, and identify the best delivery method. That could range from a single emailed statement from the CEO to multiple spokespeople doing on-camera TV interviews.

2. Respond Quickly
When the media starts calling, it’s important to react quickly. The news cycle moves rapidly, and if you are not able to accommodate a reporter’s deadline, you may miss your chance to have your side of the story included in the story that reaches the masses.

3. Be Honest, Accurate and Disclose Everything
When issuing statements to the media, honestly and fully address the issue. Unless your legal team advises otherwise, disclose as much as you possibly can. The truth will come out eventually, and the public will be more forgiving if they hear it directly from your organization rather than from the investigative reporter who continues to dig up inflammatory information you chose to conceal.

4. Apologize and Outline Your Plan of Action
If your organization messed up, take responsibility. If appropriate, apologize. Be genuine and empathetic. Explain how your organization plans to make amends, and what you’re going to do to prevent future problems.

5. Mitigate Risk
As soon as possible, the organization must either fix or guard against the problem that caused the crisis. This fulfills the commitments made in your apology and may decrease the likelihood that it will happen again.

Weathering a crisis is a challenge, and mismanaging the issue when under the media spotlight can do serious – sometimes irreparable – reputation damage. A skilled PR agency or in-house PR team can lead the organization through the storm. This includes not only how to work with the news media, but also how to manage communications to other important publics, such as victims of the breach – but that’s a whole other blog post.