Those who have handled crises situations before know very well that we can’t control every possible incident that may affect company reputation and share value. Often a crisis comes out of left field and usually the business is not ready for it. When a crisis hits though, many business executives don’t follow a communications blueprint, often because they don’t have one or have never dealt with a similar situation before.
Before we look at the steps you need to take to deal appropriately with the fall-out from crises, we need to understand five accepted tenets of crises communications.
Crisis Communications must be:
Prompt – or else rumour and innuendo fill the void.
Honest – the truth will always come out.
Informative – give enough information to create a story without legally compromising your situation.
Concerned - show people you care about their feelings.
Two-way - allow for interaction with all important audiences.
A crises or disaster is an opportunity to interact so view it as an opportunity to show your worth, repair and build relationships and correct mistakes. As business leaders your role is to manage factors that might affect or shape perceptions and in the end it is about making the right decisions and taking the right actions. Companies are judged by their response to the crises and it is essential that all key executives know what to do and how to react.
STEP 1: EXPLORE AND ASSESS
If you are responsible for managing the reputation of your business – head of communications or marketing or you as MD/CEO assume the role, your first step is to quickly gather the facts (all the facts) and asses the scale of the crises. At this point you need to decide if the crisis is low, medium or high risk. And risk is assessed on the impact to the business. Low Risk situations have low levels of external interest and a low impact on business; Medium Risk situations have high levels of external interest but a low impact on business; and High Risk situations have a high impact on business and a high level of external interest.
It is imperative that at this point all key management heads including legal are gathered together to assess the risk level.
When assessing the situation is very important to segment the affected audiences (stakeholders) and examine the impact of the crises on these groups. Different stakeholders will have different reactions to the crises and appropriate messaging must be developed and tailored.
STEP 2: MESSAGE DEVELOPMENT
When the crises level has been identified as medium or high risk, a crises plan kicks into action. Crises of low risk will still need to be monitored as they can quickly change to medium or high risk scenarios. The first rule of message development is to put yourself into the audiences shoes. What will be their emotions, thoughts and reactions to the crises? Then you need to tailor your strategy, messaging and actions based on the above. Remember to keep legal involved every step of the way.
STEP 3: STRATEGY
At this point you need to develop a communication strategy and plan of action. Remember that this all needs to happen at a rapid pace. This is where you decide how you are going to communicate with your various audiences, who is going to do the communication and when the communication will take place. You will also need to have a communication system in place to keep internal audiences informed before communicating externally. This should not be via email, but through quick informative meetings with key people intern
ally who hold the responsibility for the communication when it happens. In addition, you must also identify allies, experts and supporting materials which can be used as needed.
STEP 4: RECOVERY
Now the strategy and plan is in place it is time to take remedial action and this is always the tricky part. Many companies find it hard to accept blame, however by accepting responsibility for the crises a business will be viewed as being a responsible organization. There may be cases where you are not at fault, but if you are then you need to own it. At this point you must be seen as co-operating not bullying, delaying or coercing others. Express regret and ensure your communication includes concern (empathy), resolution (action) and reform (remedy the situation quickly).
STEP 5: MITIGATION
Mitigation works hand in hand with recovery and this is where the company works towards a proactive resolution of the issue at hand. Communication should always be honest and as frequent as is necessary. This is where you keep all stakeholders informed of the proactive resolution of the crises. Here it is key to position the issue and provide context to frame it: don’t allow others to do it for you. Mitigation is also about monitoring and assessing reactions to your communication and responding quickly and openly to allay fears. At this point you may find low media interest, because what happens is they now have all the information and the story is no longer “news”. If you find this is so but you still have more to say, use other channels like your website, social media, newsletters and so on.
STEP 6: FUTURE
Now this stage should actually be the starting point for any company, however it is not until you find yourself in a crises that you need it. If you haven’t yet had a crises and wish to ensure you are properly prepared, this is the stage you need to setup some key tactics.
1. Establish and set up an early warning process to alert you to a potential crises
2. Put a crises management policy and process in place
3. Establish a Crises Level identification process to aid you in assessing the level of crises
4. Do a series of risk analysis assessments on potential crises and plan for these ahead of time
5. Assemble team, responsibilities and contact lists
6. Ensure there is a process flow and monitoring system in place to enable you to assess feedback from audiences. For example, if you have a person responsible for a set of stakeholders, they must feedback their meetings and discussions with these stakeholders on a regular basis. There are also monitoring tools for traditional and online media which will keep you abreast of what others are saying about your company.
These six steps will help you communicate through a crises, however if you are concerned you may need to consult your PR agency or communications team to get further clarity on managing a crises effectively.