Crises happen – through incompetence, negligence or just bad luck

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Looking back on 2016 it seems it was a year when crises and issues abounded. From fee gouging exposed at banks, to the disaster at Dreamworld, it wasn’t a good year for many, and that’s without looking at the political situation.

While politicians seem to be able to deflect the impact of an issue or crisis with a misleading claim, outright lie, vitriol, or blaming someone else, companies can’t get away with such techniques once an issue is in the public arena.

All organisations should have “what if?” crises and issues management plans which include, at the very least, emergency procedures like product recalls, in cases of a crisis likely to cause physical harm.

Communication strategies are an essential part of these plans and need to be detailed and far-reaching, tailored to each organisation and regularly updated.

Some points to consider in any crisis communication strategy include:

1. Be prepared

Have contingency plans that are updated regularly so the events and scenarios that inevitably follow a crisis can be managed as effectively as possible. This includes identifying who has responsibility for what – and if necessary arranging training, for example media training for nominated spokespersons.

2. Be honest

Trying to minimise the impact (for example understating the number of people or products affected), only giving part of the story, covering up, misleading or deceiving, are all likely to extend interest in a crisis and put the organisation on the back foot when the true facts are exposed.

If it’s likely information will end up in the public domain, it’s nearly always best if you say it first.

3. It’s a team effort

According to the type and size of a crisis, it can become a full time job for several executives to manage the fall-out. It might be tempting for a CEO to quarantine the problem by getting together with two or three aides and decide approaches in isolation, but this rarely works. Bad decisions can be made without full access to all knowledge and up to date information.

4. Communicate

Keep all stakeholders and influencers informed. This doesn’t necessarily mean exposing every skeleton in every cupboard, but then again, if information is likely to be made public from other sources, it’s always best if you say it first. It’s especially critical that staff know the company story accurately (and they will probably know if what they’re told is true) so that they know what to say in their dealings with others.

5. Monitor attitudes/reactions 

Social media makes this especially important. What information is out there and what are people saying? Correct any misunderstandings and get your information into every conversation. Consider opening your own information centres on social media to distribute to people.

6. Apologise

Not always popular with lawyers, but acknowledging the problem, apologising, and detailing steps being taken to correct, is a great defence against criticism. This needs to be followed up with information on what steps are being taken to prevent such problems in the future.

7. Your attitude changes, not theirs 

A common mistake that executives make is to think the attitude of other people, especially journalists, changes in a crisis.  As a result they become defensive and give in to the temptation to put up barriers and cover up.  However, it‘s not usually other people that change, it’s the company executives. They are likely to become defensive and adopt a siege mentality and feel under attack. To a journalist, a story is a story is a story.

8. Third parties

With most crises and issues, there are third parties involved and they may well be making their own statements. Keep in touch with other parties that might be involved, so you can influence their approaches and perhaps pre-empt any statement or follow up promptly.

9. Recognise the end

Recognise when a peak of the crisis is past and avoid keeping it alive by sending out unnecessary information and continuing to think in crisis mode.

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