Navigating the crisis communications minefield
The Covid 19 crisis is, we all hope, a once in a lifetime situation as it challenges both our health and our economic security. We’re already seeing that some organisations are managing the crisis – and their resulting crisis communications quite well – others less so. You may well have already started to develop your own personal list of brands you look forward to investing in when normal life resumes, and others that you will do your best to avoid given their behaviour thus far during the crisis.
There’s an important lesson here for crisis communications professionals. If your company develops bad policy, or policy that is perceived to be bad, your job has become harder. If you’ve made decisions deemed to be poor in the court of public opinion, you are in trouble. That’s why communications people should be sitting at the highest table of corporate decision making. They have an innate understanding of how a policy decision will be received.
But often, it’s left to us to clear up the mess created by others. What can we do to manage through a crisis as successfully as possible?
Most importantly, we must plan for these things to happen, rather than hoping that they won’t. Covid 19 is an extreme situation, but businesses face crises all the time. Few bother to prepare for them. This is a dereliction of duty.
If/when it comes to a crisis, preparation can be the difference between protecting your brand or damaging it beyond repair. If crisis takes you by surprise – such is their nature, unfortunately – then having time to prepare becomes a rare luxury. What carries you through in this scenario, is razor sharp reactions, and a cool, clear head.
Our dedicated crisis communications team here at Luminous HQ have answered some crisis-related FAQs and put together some top tips on how you can learn to navigate your communications journey.
Why is preparation so important?
Because when it strikes – and, more often than not, it’s when you least expect it – you need to be able to take control and hit the ground running, managing the stream of messages that could impact your business across media and social channels. Ill-prepared and knee-jerk communications are dangerous and can have a devastating impact. Retracting statements never did fair well!
Why are people-based crises the most dangerous?
Bitter employees turning sour, disgruntled customers who didn’t get quite what they wanted, try-it-on individuals who love to stir things up to achieve some recompensed benefit – these are the breeds of ‘fire-starters’ that can ignite a good old PR storm in next to no time. And social media, in its true catalytic fashion, will fan those flames far and wide. If you don’t catch them in time, they can propel your crisis into catastrophic levels.
What good can silence do?
The short answer is, none.
Taking the head-in-the-sand approach might be where you want to go, but it’s not going to quash a crisis. Taking a passive approach hands control to someone else and gives out the message that your company doesn’t have the reins on this. You lose credibility, you lose business, you lose. You don’t have to have all the answers just yet, but you do have to show you’re in calm and clear control.
Shutting others down or blocking them from social media channels – effectively taking away their right to speak – is only going to make them shout louder, encourage others to join them in their rage against you, and you will come out worse.
Taking too long to define your comment is just another form of silence that can cause more damage. Your customers may genuinely need to know what steps to take, and if you don’t guide them quickly, you will lose them. Permanently.
But don’t be too rash or loud, because noisy rebuttals won’t help you either!
Get your team in order
When crisis hits, your full squad of employees will need to know two things:-
– who is the right leader in times of crisis?
– how do I make sure I don’t inflame this?
Your ‘everyday’ leader might not actually be the right person to guide your team through a crisis. You need someone who is calm under pressure, rational, communicates well and can be a safe pair of hands. Your team needs to know there is a player and a process in place so that they don’t inadvertently make things worse, and that they too feel safe along the journey.
Get your ducks in a row
This might be stating the obvious, but it’s one that is often overlooked: get your facts straight first. Dive into what’s happened, do your research, ask your team. (Forget the ‘why’ – this is irrelevant right now). Ignore that knee-jerk urge to respond instantly. You have a small amount of time to get your house in order, so take it. And take control of the pace of the crisis rather than let it control you – to the point where you send out an ill-informed statement that you will regret later on. That’s going to put any credibility you have left in a risky place.
Now that you have all the facts to hand, be selective about what you share with your ever-widening audience. Spouting out too much information, too quickly, to defend yourself could have an adverse effect. Remember what the audience thinks when ‘the lady doth protest too much’? That’s not to say you go to the other extreme and deliberately hide information. That’s not going to go well for you! Just think about what they need to know, rather than what you want to say. No one at this point, other than yourself, cares much about your reputation. So let’s deal with facts, and the sharing of relevant information. If and when someone needs the minutiae, you have it ready to go.
Is honesty the best policy?
Whether you look at this from an ethics point of view or from a business strategy perspective, telling the truth makes sense. Regardless of whether your truth is believed – this is a PR response, some will see this as ‘spin’ – you must stick to it. Even if the truth is you just don’t have an answer. Never fabricate something for the sake of giving an answer: it will only come back to bite you on your proverbial. Take responsibility for finding the answer. Share how you’re going to achieve that. But don’t make the answers up.
You get one shot to get it right in crisis communications. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. The way you manage your crisis is as powerful, if not more so, than the journey itself. Integrity is key. And the world (at least, the one that’s important for your business) will be watching to see how you handle it.
There’s no one-size-fits all approach to crisis communications, and these are just a few guidelines that will help you stay on the right side of the track. However, to navigate what could be a potential minefield, sometimes, you need to call in the experts. But tread carefully with who you choose to work with…
Getting the right crisis communications team
Our crisis communications professionals have helped guide global businesses through some of the world’s biggest challenges of the last 25 years, including the Year 2000 millennium bug scare, the 2008 global economic crisis, as well as countless localised crises. Our team has the experience, maturity and authority to lead you through a crisis as calmly as possible.
But please, don’t leave it too late. Talk to us as soon as you can, and let us consider what kind of crisis could damage your organisation, and how you might best deal with it. Because more often than not, good planning ensures there isn’t a crisis.