By Matthew Knowles,
The team at Hotwire in the UK kindly invited me to speak on a panel last week looking at crisis communications as they published their UK findings of the agency’s global report on the subject after surveying industry leaders in many of the countries that they cover. It was a good event, with interesting questions from the audience and I certainly learned a lot from my fellow panellists.
Afterwards, I thought it might be useful to set out my thoughts on the subject in a little more detail. Also, because we had so much to talk about, I’d missed raising one vital aspect that bears mentioning, so here’s a good place to set that right. Apologies if this is a little long but with a bit of luck there’s something in there that’s helpful.
First of all, it was interesting that Hotwire entitled the report and discussion ‘The Values Shield’ because it became pretty clear very quickly from the panel that the values of the business are at the heart of managing a crisis successfully.
It’s fairly certain that at some point an organisation is going to be challenged with some kind of issue, the panel was agreed on that. So don’t worry, prepare.
To do so, ask a few questions of yourself and your organisation. What are the values and principles of your organisation? Who are your key audiences? Do they know what your values are? Do you know who your audience members are?
When a crisis hits it’s too late to find out.
So, get to work on defining your organisation’s values now and then sharing them frequently with your key audiences, including leadership and the key points of contact within your organisation with important external audiences, which can then flow it to their teams as well.
In all areas of communications, your messaging drips like water onto a rock, only wearing it away and making an impact after several repetitions.
Ensure that the voice of the organisation is known and consistent before any issues arise. Keep the media that inform your audiences warm to your organisation throughout the year.
If the organisation is clear about who you are and so are your key audiences then it’s likely you’ll get the benefit of the doubt when something negative arises. If that work has not been put in first then there will be precious little goodwill around when you need it most.
There were two comments I made at the event that I think got the most attention. The first was that I don’t believe that you can hastily change tone, messaging or values when a crisis arises.
If the audiences know who your organisation is before a crisis and the crisis response fits with that identity, then it won’t clash with their existing views about you and will be more likely to be accepted.
These values also can help inform you as to whether there really is a crisis or not.
A Twitter mob can be a big deal, a little deal or no deal at all. If online pitchforks are sparked up, how does this affect your key audiences? Social media listening tools can flag issues that are gaining momentum, whether paid-for tools or the ones provided for free by Google and the analytics from Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks. But they can’t replace the human judgement about whether something is worth responding to or not, that’s where communicators come in.
Social media can also be useful for rapid rebuttal or comment on an issue too, especially where a misperception or inaccuracy is threatening to gather momentum that can be quickly nipped in the bud.
So, don’t panic, stay true to the values of the organisation, let them continue to shine through even in the tough times, and it’s likely you’ll be granted the benefit of the doubt.
This gives you time to comment on the initial outbreak, review internally what is going on and then calmly, factually address it externally, especially with key audiences and via their usual intermediaries at your organisation.
A crisis covers the whole business. So should the values of the organisation.
These values should play a role in hiring, procurement, branding and much more that create the whole of the company.
When the brown stuff hits the fan they also inform the response. Customers, suppliers, employees and others can all be powerful advocates when you’re in the eye of the storm. Keeping close to them, keeping them informed and understanding them well can pay dividends when you need them.
Building up goodwill and understanding of your underlying purposes will help when things go wrong. You’ll need journalists to give you the benefit of the doubt while you work to get them more information and your other stakeholders can become powerful third party advocates in tough times. If every employee knows what these values are and, at least in part, has their performance evaluated to them then the business is even more likely to live up to its values and be less likely to be exposed for betraying them through negative employee behaviour at any level.
Can employees be rewarded and recognised across the business for specific actions that live the company’s values? If so, that models positive behaviour for others to follow.
Because it covers the whole organisation so should the response.
Communications is a cross-company function and so should be plugged in to the rest of the business anyway.
Never is this more important than when defending the reputation of the organisation.
Legal, HR, procurement, finance and more can all be allies for communicators before, during and after. Has your procurement team set up multiple sources of key items, with contracts that allow for instant termination in cases of illegal activity, wrongdoing or reputational risk that damages your brand by association too? Has your HR team recruited people with diverse viewpoints to test assumptions but with an understanding of the aims of the business that are non-negotiable? Have they made sure that conduct policies are in place and understood to reduce the risk of behavioural scandals? Is it possible for communications to have a slot at any new employee induction day? It is a service to the whole business so offer it up to people on day one, here’s who we are and how we can help you. Equally, here’s how you can help us and any relevant company communications policies. How close to the legal team are you, so that they can guide you during a crisis? But remember, as a communicator, when the time comes, all heads will turn to look at you. So get your plan in place with the rest of the business and be ready to lead it for the organisation. If needs be, force yourself into meetings, especially when involving leadership. No other department should lead on a crisis response, so make sure that’s in the plan too. Advise yes, guide yes, participate yes, lead, no. That’s where you come in.
So with all that said, how is your crisis communications plan? A large proportion of those surveyed were not worried about a crisis hitting their business and content that they had a plan in place. It’s good not to be worried. Maybe this indicates that you have a plan in place.
But, is your plan any good, has the organisation’s leadership bought into it and agreed to play their role in it, plus has it been reviewed and rehearsed in the last six months?
My second comment that got some attention was to quote the well-known philosopher Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
When you get punched in the mouth, how will you react? And if you don’t have a plan in place, get one quickly. Ensure that the plan has names or job titles with up-to-date communications contact details in it, each with a deputy too. You can almost guarantee that the crisis will hit when half of your named people are on a long-distance flight somewhere…
In a new role, after meeting my team and key internal stakeholders my next priority is to review the crisis communications plan. You’ll likely have heard the old adage “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” There’s a good reason that it persists as a useful phrase…
A fellow panellist rightly said that the crisis you face is inevitably not the one you planned for. So, the plan needs to be flexible, perhaps anticipating the most likely scenarios but also ensuring the process can adapt to whatever the world throws at you.
Game plan some likely and unlikely issues to see how it works and, if you can, get the leadership involved so they know what will be expected of them and so they relax that you have it covered. This will avoid some of the panic that always ensues when a crisis occurs and will allow you to execute the plan as already agreed, rather than have any of the seniors try to change things on the fly.
Regular media training helps too. The CEO should be seen as the overall communications leader anyway.
If the crisis communications plan has been reviewed and signed off by the leadership team, then they can be bound to it and expected to deliver as set out in it. Otherwise you can face resistance right when you need it the least.
Big events like financial results and the like usually see him or her fronting up the company. If s/he knows that and embraces it then the organisation is in a good place, especially in a crisis when if it goes wrong or they go off script it can mean their job. A lot of positives can flow from the head of a business understanding that and taking it seriously.
Understand the regulatory environment in which you operate, for example the health and safety laws that apply to an industrial accident or ICAO Annex 13 in an aircraft accident. They have a significant bearing on what you can and cannot say, so know them ahead of time if they apply to your business or those others that apply instead. Integrate them into your plan.
In the social media and rolling news era, speed is critical. Tell your story quickly or someone else will tell it for you. But sometimes internal investigations are needed first. A holding statement will help, it expresses focus on the issue and what the processes are that temporarily delay any further information coming out.
It buys you time but it does not end the issue. Plan on saying more as soon as is possible.
Remember another old adage: “What can come out eventually should come out immediately.”
A crisis can quickly re-emerge or a good response be destroyed if something contradicting previous statements emerges from an unofficial source. Wherever possible, full disclosure is advisable.
Clarity is also crucial. Plain English messaging, used by a restricted set of official spokespeople with zero room for freestyling or personal opinion, will reduce the risk of making things worse when reacting. If the organisation is in the wrong there is still always a way to say sorry that will satisfy both the audience and the lawyers. Work with them to find it.
Seek corrections to misreporting or a right to reply, unless you judge that the issue is dying down and to do so would just fan the flames. Guide journalists, producers and researchers to credible voices or your third party advocates and privately explain to them why certain talking heads are not helping their audience’s understanding of the issue. 24 hour news channels can be reminded that availability and quotability are insufficient without credibility.
So, finally, what was it that I forgot to mention? Once it’s all over, go back and review the plan. Did it work? What could be done better? What did you learn that could be applied elsewhere? Were the key people bought in? Are they on board now?
Often it needs a crisis to get leadership focus. Now you have it, so strike while the iron is hot. And we are all tempted to move straight on to the next demand on our time, but we should always do our best to evaluate what has just gone by. Never is that more important than in a crisis situation.
As a communicator it is where you are tested the most, but it’s also where we add the most value. Summarise the benefits delivered by the plan and the people involved and show where it could have gone even better, so that the plan can be improved while the memories of a tough time, handled well, are fresh. Review, evaluate and update the plan once the dust has settled.
When things go wrong say that you are acting, act, show what you did afterwards and then update the plan for next time as well as advocate for any changes in the business to prevent a recurrence.
Thank you to Hotwire for the invitation and for the panel for their insight, chaired expertly by Sooraj Shah. I learned a lot from the morning. I hope that this is an interesting follow-up.