By David Imber
There are communicators for all seasons. There are a range of roles, personalities, preferences, and approaches in our industry. We might get stereotyped as the people you call in to “pretty something up” but in truth our expertise can be much more fundamental.
This article is about one of my communications passions – Crisis Communications. Recognising that, even among communicators, this can be a scary area to work in, I thought given the focus on a recent crisis I’d provide my top 5 crisis management tips.
Sitting at home on a Tuesday night just a couple of weeks ago, I saw an item on Twitter, that no doubt you would have read about by now. Federal Treasurer and Member for Kooyong Josh Frydenberg had released a pamphlet and video with an endorsement from “Karen, CEO, Guide Dogs Victoria” with a guide dog puppy being held by her. Twitter started to go into full gear after an image of it was shared. I knew instantly that this was going to be one of the major political stories for the week. And it was.
Guide Dogs Victoria were facing all the elements of a crisis- which is an unexpected and unwanted event, usually of a nature as to impact the entire organisation. I started thinking about how Guide Dogs Victoria should manage this. While I started writing this article with a critique, I thought it better to write about what I’ve learnt about how to manage communications in a crisis.
Here are my 5 crisis management tips for communicators:
- Plan for a crisis.
Anyone in our industry knows that, despite our best efforts, things won’t always go to plan. Websites crash, products malfunction, executives can embarrass themselves online, you can suddenly find yourself on the wrong side of a social issue and face a boycott- the list goes on.
Knowing your organisation and its strengths and weaknesses is essential to ensuring you are not completely under prepared for a crisis. If your organisation doesn’t have risk management plans, that include the brand and communications risk to your organisation, then you are at real risk of a mistake becoming a crisis.
Planning should include clarity on who does what and who leads (and who leads if the assigned leader is on leave). Strong plans have templates and escalation protocols, and reminders of who should be notified (it can be easy to forget in the heat of a crisis that you may have legal obligations to report certain things and key stakeholders who expect to know what’s happening directly). The Australian Institute of Company Directors even advise having external communications advisers ready to be called in the event of a crisis.
Crises highlight the organisational and communications health of an organisation. Regular crisis management drills will highlight where information flows are weak or approvals take too long. Making it up in the middle of a crisis only makes it worse.
- Gain the information you need to respond as soon as possible.
Almost inevitably a crisis occurs out of hours or during holidays. It may also be taking place without the organisation knowing about it first (such as when customers call your contact centre to complain or the time a journalist called me to ask whether my organisation knew we’d suffered a data breach). Finding out what’s actually happening is critical for any organisation. If your customers are complaining about something and head office doesn’t have visibility then that’s a crisis in itself. There are times when communications are cut and it’s not possible to get real time advice from the ground. Yet most of the time your job in communications will be to use your connections in the organisation to find out what’s happening.
Incomplete information going to you and/ or your leaders can result in statements that don’t reflect what’s going on and will be poorly received. Your stakeholders rely on you to be the experts on your organisation so make sure you have channels deep into your organisation and ways to talk with key functions out of hours. When customers or journalists have better information about what’s happening than you, you are losing the communications battle already.
- Communicate early and effectively- internally and externally.
I’m continually surprised at how long it takes for organisations to respond, or the lag in its responses after an initial statement. If you are in the eye of the storm and have customers, stakeholders, media, and even Government, baying for blood then you’re not having a great day. But hiding in internal meetings while refusing to comment can serve simply to increase the level of frustration and anger from those affected.
Every crisis will necessitate a different response but saying nothing is almost always the worst option. Public statements should be timely, clear and concise. If you don’t know what’s happened or why, then issue a holding line saying you’re working to find out and promise to update when you know more. Communicating clearly and quickly to key partners and stakeholders through existing relationship channels is just as important and that’s where internal communications is essential. Your key contact points for those stakeholders need to be kept in the loop so they can effectively manage their relationships.
Poor crisis management can also be the result of organisations that work in silos, have too much process and/ or a lack of trust. You can plan for good information flows and ensure that if the organisation needs to communicate on the fly it can do so professionally and consistently.
- Take accountability- apologise, show empathy, make good.
Thankfully the days of organisations routinely refusing apologise for fear of legal consequences is past. But it still happens. The only thing worse than the crisis can be the poor way in which an organisation handles it. Even at the height of a crisis an organisation needs someone thinking from the perspective of its affected stakeholders. What do they want or need?
My advice is that every organisation should over deliver in responding to the crisis as a sign of good will. If you’ve cost your customers time or money, don’t wait for them to seek compensation, get in quickly and do more than the minimum. The first things you do to respond to the crisis show the values of your organisation and how you’ll recover.
But before you can apologise or make good to the external world, there needs to be internal accountability. Someone needs to own the management of the crisis. If it’s a major disaster that person should be the CEO or the Chair. If an organisation doesn’t know who’s in charge it’s highly likely that will contribute to a slow, inconsistent or inadequate response and further damage the brand externally.
It’s also critical to be there for the people affected in a crisis, whether they’re customers or employees. If someone is injured someone senior needs to get to those people and offer support to their families. Choosing to spend more time with lawyers than with those impacted directly shows a greater focus on the organisation than on those who’ve been hurt.
- Get back to business while learning from this crisis.
While the very worst crisis can destroy an organisation, most don’t. Brands rarely die of a heart attack but of slower decay. So while it’s important to act quickly and efficiently in a crisis you can recover if there are mistakes made.
Organisations should take the opportunity to use the crisis as a chance to improve their operations. A full-scale review may even be requested at Board level to assure them that the organisation will be better placed next time. What didn’t work in the crisis must be learnt and acted on. Communications functions are often well placed to contribute advice on how best to improve crisis management plans and especially how to speed up information flows.
There is more to defending the reputation of an organisation than having timely and effective crisis communications. However, communications can often act as the voice of the customer/ external stakeholder and urge organisations to act comprehensively and effectively in a crisis. Silken words will never be enough to get around organisational inaction or cold legalistic approaches. Being ready to help in a crisis can enhance your own reputation and give confidence to leaders that you have their back and can support them in some of their most stressful moments.
So find your voice, and when in a crisis, see it as your role to step up with practical support, as well as great words, to help your organisation respond.
About the Author
David Imber is a passionate corporate/public affairs professional with experience across a range of communications disciplines and sectors. He currently consults through Mountain Media across a range of communications disciplines including crisis, government and stakeholder relations, advocacy, strategic campaigning advice. He has worked in public policy in the public, private and not for profit sectors. Professionally, David’s strength is in developing external affairs strategies and in managing and enhancing corporate reputation through effective media strategy and stakeholder engagement. David has a track record of building productive working relationships with people at all levels, of solving critical problems and delivering on corporate strategy. Currently, David is the Vice President of the IABC Victoria Board.