What to say when you have nothing to say: writing a holding statement

  • Speed is the defining factor for success in a crisis but it can be difficult to issue a statement quickly when information is limited.
  • Holding statements are pre-prepared statements that can be adapted to the situation and issued in a very short period of time, even if many facts are still unclear.
  • Writing a holding statement for your most likely events allows you to speak to the public and stakeholders and generate speed as early as possible.

We’ve all heard our moms say that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in the realm of crisis communications where the perceived actions of a company need to be explained and public expectations met. In this setting, silence isn’t golden: in fact, silence will be construed as ignorance or that you have something to hide.

However, in the early stages of a crisis, you usually don’t have very much you can say. Information is scarce, and the situation will be changing quickly and dramatically. So even if you want to, it can be hard to go out to the public with something useful to say.

Enter the holding statement

A holding statement is a pre-prepared tool that allows organizations to overcome some of the information gaps that otherwise slow down your initial response. At Kith, we firmly believe that speed is the critical component that separates a good crisis response from a great response. For us, an understanding of shared values, coupled with a clear chain of command, makes an organization fast. In turn, this speed allows the organization to overcome fear, disrupt the crisis, and start on its path towards transformation .

Because the holding statement has been prepared in advance and can be issued quickly, it is a great tool to help generate speed at the earliest stages of a crisis.

What’s in a holding statement?

A holding statement is a pre-prepared template that you fill in with the specifics of a situation so you can issue something useful as quickly as possible.

The format and specifics of each statement will differ depending upon your business and the type of risk you are dealing with. However, the goal of any holding statement is to acknowledge the event, empathize with those affected, and confirm that you are responding and taking the matter seriously.

Ideally, the holding statement should be no more than three to six sentences long. Again, the intent is to fill the information vacuum quickly and the longer the statement is, the greater the temptation will be to start editing. Longer, more detailed explanations can follow as the situation unfolds.

A statement for each situation

Despite the flexibility of a holding statement, these aren’t one size fits all and you will need to prepare several templates to meet specific circumstances. Luckily, you can plan these out in advance and have the relevant information you need within your business. The first thing that needs to be adjusted is the tone which will depend on the type of event. We advocate something like our risk framework here as this will help you differentiate between strategic, preventable, or external risk events, each of which requires a different approach.

In this context, strategic means things your organization meant to do so your general approach is to defend and explain. A preventable risk is something that the organization should have zero tolerance for so you need to apologize, say you’re on top of it and move forward. Finally, with an external risk, your objective is to articulate the plan to move forward and explain how things are going to get better. However, you must also stress that your organization is part of the herd to highlight that this is not something that is affecting you alone.

The second thing that helps when developing your holding statements is input from your risk whisperers who can explain the significant and more likely risks that you face. They can also describe the possible effects on the community and the kind of support that might be provided (for example, a relative response team to help those affected).

Armed with this information, you and your team can create a set of holding statements where the general structure and tone are appropriate for the situation. All you need to do then is fill in the blanks and issue the statement.

Writing a Holding Statement

The three main parts of a holding statement are as follows.

Acknowledge — Explain that you are aware of the event and include the time and place where the event took place if known.

Empathize — People will be experiencing some loss or interruption because of the event so acknowledge this hurt. If you believe that the incident is limited to a specific area, include this information. That allows you to speak to those affected directly and also helps reassure other communities who aren’t involved.

Confirm your commitment — Tell everyone that you are responding and make a commitment to do what’s necessary to rectify the situation.

Even if you have nothing else to say, these three elements are enough to issue a holding statement to begin to fill the information gap. You simply complete this template using the pertinent information for the event, adjusting the tone to match the type of risk you are dealing with.

For example, here’s an example of a statement for a preventable risk.

“Worldwide Music Inc is aware of an outage that is affecting streaming of our on-demand music services via the WWM Music app [ acknowledge]. This outage took place in the early hours of October 1st and fans in North America may have had their broadcasts interrupted [ empathize]. We are working hard to get our services online and won’t stop until all WorldWide music channels are back online [ commitment

You should always be able to issue something this simple in the early stages of a crisis, but there may be some other elements that you can add.

“Worldwide Music Inc is aware of an outage that is affecting We are working hard to get our WWM Music app back up and running and won’t stop until all WorldWide music channels are back online [ commitment]. In the meantime, anyone affected can access their favorite music via the Worldwide Music site at www.WWM.music . We will continue to update you on our progress in resolving this matter at www.WWM.music/status , on Twitter / IG / TikToc @WWM-rocks, and our customer service team is on standby at 1–800-WWM-CHAT [ information for those affected]. Any press inquiries should be directed to our communications team at 1–800–555–1654 [ information for the media streaming of our on-demand music services via the WWM Music app acknowledge]. This outage took place in the early hours of October 1st affecting fans in North America empathize] and we are sorry that we aren’t able to provide you with live streaming services at the moment [ apology

An apology — In addition to empathizing, there are times when you need to say sorry , particularly when the crisis was something preventable. You can issue a formal apology at a later stage but, if you know that it’s the right thing to do, say sorry as early as possible.

Information for those affected — There may be advice you can give to those who have been affected by the event which is particularly important where public safety is concerned. Including information for returning a contaminated product, symptoms to look out for or how to seek medical help is particularly helpful and may even be mandatory in some circumstances. Even if the event is more of a nuisance than a life-threatening event, you might still be able to explain how to work around the issue for anyone affected.

If there have been casualties and a relative response center is being established, include the contact number in the holding statement.

Information for the media — Any major event is going to draw press scrutiny so include a point of contact. This should be the media response team who can field calls, handle interview requests, and issue updates on the situation as these are approved.

So with these elements in mind, here’s what the Worldwide Music statement might look like.

This might seem like a lot to prepare at short notice, but here’s the beauty of writing a holding statement: you don’t have to. These are like MadLibs for crisis comms so you only need to fill in the blanks.

In the example above, Worldwide Music would be aware that there could be instances where their streaming services could be interrupted. They know their customer service and media response numbers so the statement can be prepared in advance, leaving only the underlined sections blank for completion if required.

Approval in advance

To be truly useful, the holding statement has to be issued as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, any official statement will need approval before it can be issued which can slow down the process. Therefore, to make the holding statement effective, you need to get approval in advance. This can be hard as some executives will be reluctant to approve things in advance and Legal might be squeamish about signing off on a fill-in-the-blank template.

Some of this will depend upon the personalities involved, but there are two things I have seen work well that will help to get your statements approved in advance. The first is to educate your senior leadership about the purpose of the holding statement and the limitations that are built-in. Assure them that you can only issue a version of what’s already been approved, not something written from scratch.

The second technique is to show everyone the value of the holding statement during drills and simulations . This will help them see the benefits of the process, meaning that they are more likely to approve the use of these in a real crisis. The important thing is not to speed up the development of the holding statement with this templated approach only to then have release slowed down because of a sluggish approvals process.

An improved tool for your crisis toolkit

We create these holding statements to help kick start the response. We know that crisis events can happen, but now, instead of a blank sheet of paper, we have a template that we can quickly populate with the critical information. It’s already consistent with our mission and values. It’s already been approved through the chain of command so we can create the statement and get it out the door very quickly.

Share what you know and are sure of, commit to the response and empathize with those affected. Then, establish a cadence of when you’ll be able to report back with additional updates, and your crisis communications rhythm is already establishing itself.

This kicks off the communications elements of the response, but these are also a tremendous galvanizing tool for your organization. Everyone sees that you have started to engage with the crisis and that you’re committed to resolving things. The holding statement has started that flywheel spinning, speed is building, and that’s the key differentiator between a good and a great crisis response.

Originally published at https://kith.co on September 26, 2019.

CEO / Founder of @Kith.co - Crisis Communications and Reputation Management Firm, Proud father, son, brother and friend. Native Floridian, proud 'Nole.

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