Are you prepared to master disaster? Communications / Crisis communication / Crisis Management / Leadership communications / Reputation management

In the lead-up to our event next week, featuring two case-studies on communicating through a challenge or crises, we pose the question: do you have a plan in place to manage a crisis?

IABC’s Communication World Magazine ran a piece earlier this year that gave a great overview of essential elements to any crisis communication plan.

Communication professionals know how crucial it is to plan and prepare if you have any hope of becoming a master of disaster during a crisis. Yet we still see statistics highlighting a lack of crisis preparation, like those in a Regester Larkin and Steelhenge survey involving 170 large corporations in 27 countries:

  • Most firms (86%) had a crisis management plan in place but only 60% conduct crisis preparation and training annually.
  • Nearly half of the companies admitted that their CEO is not included annually in training for crisis management, citing a “lack of buy-in” among senior management as the key challenge to crisis preparation.

No one truly believes it will happen to them—until the dominoes of disaster start falling just as they do again and again, year after year, for the next unsuspecting CEO and management team. For those still lacking the appropriate level of annual preparation, consider this concise “survival guide” for when it all goes sideways.

Respond immediately. When any crisis hits—product recall, data breach, an ad campaign sparking public outrage, an employee scandal, you name it—stakeholders such as customers, employees, suppliers, brand partners and the public will expect an immediate response, if only to initially acknowledge that you are aware of the issue and taking immediate steps to respond with appropriate action.

Identify a primary spokesperson who is front-and-centre to ensure you are speaking with one voice and clear, consistent messages. The more senior the spokesperson the better, making the CEO ideal as you seek to convey a sense of urgency and engagement.

Craft and deliver a clear statement that accepts responsibility for the problem. That includes apologising. Experience tells us that the public responds positively to companies whose leaders step into the media fray to accept blame, assume full responsibility for the crisis and apologize for the issue at hand. To delay or avoid doing so—a mistake too many firms continue to make—is a no-win scenario. And that’s particularly true in a social media age in which criticism, outrage, rumours and misinterpretation can destroy the customer trust and loyalty that you perhaps spent years fostering.

Offer regular updates. Tell the public you are fully focused on managing the situation. Provide ongoing media access and be prepared to answer questions and participate in interviews. If you do not have a detailed response to a query, for example in cases where you are still gathering facts and piecing details together for confirmation before going public, try to explain why.

Use all of your channels (company websites, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn) to communicate in a timely, ongoing manner, including hourly updates if appropriate. Consider an emergency microsite that’s dedicated to the crisis based on scope and numbers affected—for example a significant product recall or data breach.

Keep employees informed with regular internal updates to minimise harmful rumours that can spread on social media.

Be as honest and transparent as possible under the circumstances. Again, history shows that a forthright approach goes far in preserving public trust, goodwill and credibility for your firm and brand.

Never debate, complain, shift blame or offer negative personal commentary. BP CEO Tony Hayward provided a textbook example of what not to do a few years back following BP’s 4.9-million-barrel oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. After admitting that BP made “a few little mistakes” managing this environmental disaster, he made matters worse by impatiently telling reporters: “I’d like my life back.”

Don’t blame the media. Tempted to turn the tables and blame the media for the negative headlines and coverage that are making your life miserable? Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. We saw this last year when Chipotle Mexican Grill’s e-coli outbreak closed more than 40 outlets. CFO Jack Hartung thought it wise to accuse the media of writing “sensational headlines.” The result? More damaging headlines, including this Bloomberg News classic: “It’s Time for Chipotle to Eat Crow.”

Poorly managed, a crisis can easily destroy in hours or days the years spent creating brand value and public trust. A comprehensive crisis management plan should be in every firm’s communication program, but also indispensable to your PR strategy is periodic crisis training designed to give CEOs and senior managers their best prospects for success.

The full article, Will this be the year your firm proves a master of disaster—or a crisis casualty?, was written by communication strategist Mark Nusca, and appeared in the February 2016 issue of Communication World, the digital magazine of the International Association of Business Communicators.

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IABC NSW event 1 September - Communicating through challenge or crises

Want to know how to succeed as a business communicator working in a complex and issues rich environment? IABC NSW is proud to present two unique case studies, shared by leading heads of communication as they unpack how they have helped navigate their organisations through business critical challenges and crises.