Crisis Communications: The Inquiry ‘Trap’

When faced with a crisis, organisations will often reach for the apparent solution of an inquiry to look at the problem. But too often the reality of what conducting a proper inquiry means is not considered. It may not be a panacea.When organisations announce that an inquiry is to be held, they do not really appreciate what this means and what the implications are. It may offer relief from some immediate poor media coverage and show to consumers, regulators, politicians and others that they are taking the problem seriously.When the organisation itself feels that these audiences may not trust them, then they may even go a step further and set-up an independent inquiry.

However, in my experience, there can be some significant potential pitfalls that should be considered from the outset:

    • An inquiry needs resources – the announcement of an inquiry is not enough. Whoever chairs the inquiry will require resources, both financial and people, as well as a clear access to people and papers. This is especially the case when an independent inquiry has been established. The frustration that can be felt when this does not happen can easily fester and one can only imagine how this could impact on any final report and recommendations.
    • Choice of chair – the lead for any inquiry has to be completely untainted and needs to be totally committed potentially over a long period of time. The problems encountered by the Government in selecting and retaining a chair for its inquiry into historical sex abuse is a case in point.
    • Leaks – just consider the problems being faced by British Airways following their apparent IT failure. There are now a series of stories, based on leaks, about what really happened.  So the poor coverage continues. They are also facing criticism about the way in which they are handling requests for compensation. So an inquiry does not allow an organisation to dodge other aspects of the crisis.  It is not a free pass.
    • Silence of others? – there are no guarantees that any others involved will choose to stay quiet during an investigation. Again, just look at BA. Suppliers and contractors are trying to put as much distance between themselves and the problem as quickly as possible. They understand the damage to their own brands and reputations of any guilt by association even if they are eventually ‘cleared’.
    • The final report and recommendations – an organisation may be fortunate and the final report may not receive much public attention but it is likely that it will. Some senior executives can feel uncomfortable airing their dirty laundry in public but such a public break with previous bad behaviour or processes may be what is needed and is certainly part of what was implicitly agreed to when an inquiry was initially agreed to.

But more than this. The report has to be responded to and if changes are recommended then they have to be accepted or rejected. If they are rejected then an explanation as to why will be needed. If they are accepted then things will need to change and a process put in place to help implement that change.  The worst possible outcome is when changes are recommended and then not delivered on. That is playing Russian roulette with your reputation.

A final report and an organisation’s response is also part of rebuilding a reputation. So a programme of engagement needs to be developed and executed around it.So an inquiry may help to temper criticism and can undoubtedly be the right thing to do but no one should expect the scrutiny and issue to simply disappear when one is announced.An inquiry is not a short cut to a clean bill of health.


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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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