Sooner or later, every company will be faced with a crisis that has the potential to damage its reputation. Sometimes this crisis can be contained in-house; more often than not, and especially in today’s 24/7 media world, news of the problem leaks rapidly to the media, which has the power to destroy the most carefully nurtured company image almost overnight.
For the many businesses that work with hazardous materials or processes that can be dangerous to the environment and people, the risks of an accident that leads to a crisis can be proportionately greater than, for example, service businesses. Yet even here there is potential for risk, as companies may need to deal with redundancies, malicious employees with a grudge to bear or the acquisitive attentions of predatory competitors.
Despite the plethora of books on the subject, the crisis management process is simple and can be encapsulated by two simple sentences: be prepared and don’t panic.
Although both these pieces of advice sound like basic common sense, it is often the lack of an objective perception of the situation that can turn a manageable crisis into a full-blown drama.
A badly handled communication crisis can have such severe effects that in extreme circumstances corporations have had to re-invent themselves and re-brand to avert a reputation freefall. In an odd way behemoths like car and oil companies (think of the adverse publicity given to BP following the Gulf of Mexico oil spills, for example) are the least adept at dealing with crisis effectively.
Crisis management strategy relies on a two-pronged approach embracing internal as well as external communications. You cannot have a well thought out plan without giving proper attention to both of these aspects.
It is easy to understand why internal communication is as important as external in ensuring that consistent messages are communicated. Most of your workforce will have access to social media channels. Even if your company blocks these channels internally, people have smartphones that are totally independent of your internal filters. Without a proper communication plan, information will be transferred externally before you can reach for the forgotten ‘Crisis Communications Plan’ that you may have produced a few years before and squirreled away in one of your company’s computer drives.
Don’t allow your crisis plan to lay forgotten – review it frequently and be ready to implement it in an instant.
Crisis situations often have the habit of occurring outside normal hours. It is therefore essential that you have a procedure in place for dealing with such situations, either by allocating senior staff to an on-call press rota, or by ensuring that there is someone to take calls and route enquiries to the appropriate spokespersons. Poor access to information outside normal working hours can scupper even the best laid plans.
The cardinal sin of crisis management
Your internal crisis communication plan must rely on well-informed individuals whose duty is to ensure that absolutely everyone in your company is kept up to speed on the crisis and given key facts about the situation. If facts are not provided, it is human nature to speculate and there is nothing more damaging to a crisis situation than having to deal with speculation – the cardinal sin of all mismanaged communication campaigns.
Your ability to prevent speculation is based on the speed with which you can respond to the crisis. If you have rehearsed (be prepared!) and cleared your decks, you can engage with both your internal and external audiences quickly and efficiently, aiming always to be one step ahead.
Train and rehearse
External communications are somewhat easier to handle, particularly if you have a plan or rely on a specialist service. Despite this, the world of PR crisis management is littered with examples of bad practice. It is a fact that often fundamental errors in crisis communications can be caused by Senior Managers not having had experience of dealing with the media. It is therefore vital that you either train your Senior Executive in this area of communications, or (particularly if don’t have resources) rely on appointed experts and spokespeople.
Whether you have an internal or external spokesperson it is absolutely vital to be totally honest and transparent with them, providing as much accurate data as possible. Never forget that speculation can often destroy a well thought out plan.
Be in control
Dealing with the press can be a daunting experience even for the most street-wise operators. During a crisis you will not have the luxury to rely on the well thought out press release. When the media knocks at your doors they expect answers. Anodyne statements like ‘no comment’ are of no use. Indeed, by using such tactics you are implicitly telling the press to go elsewhere to find information about you.
So, the key point is to be in control. There may be stages during a crisis when the press becomes hostile, particularly when conducting interviews. Your spokesperson’s aim should be to think about the audience at all times. After all, a journalist is only there to convey a message to an audience. You need to consider each audience and tailor your message accordingly. Never forget that behind the term ‘audience’ there are individuals like you, so your message needs to be humane and approachable, not distant and mechanical.
Journalists have an array of subtle tricks to encourage a naive spokesperson to speculate. Use of the conditional (“Would you say…”) is a favourite tactic, followed by silence. Yes, silence. In such a situation it would be easy to try and elaborate on the message, to fill the gap; almost certainly this will lead to the unplanned release of information that is counter-productive.
When faced by silence, focus on reinstating the points you have just made.
Some journalists are adept at making a spokesperson feel comfortable and relaxed. The inexperienced speaker may be lulled into a highly dangerous trap from where there is no return. In extreme cases you will be faced by other tactics such as the ‘Yes and No’ game (that is, you are asked to reply with either an affirmative or a negative). In these instances your duty is to politely bounce this back. You may have to repeat yourself, but this is fine, provided you do so calmly and engagingly. Interruptions are another favourite. In this instance, just keep calm and in control (but avoid looking smug).
The arsenal of journalistic tactics is almost endless, which is why without preparation or the support of a specialist you will easily fall foul of these basic tenets, creating a worse situation than the one you wanted to avert.
So, don’t underestimate a crisis, don’t be complacent, but be prepared and you will be fine. Omit these basic rules at your peril.
Posted by guest, Maurizio Fantato, member of EVOKE PR Network.