Communicating in a crisis – not as easy as it looks
By Xanthe Vaughan Williams
I ’m revisiting the subject of crisis communications at a time which makes it near impossible not to mention the BBC or Gary Lineker.
A link here for anyone reading this in a few months’ time when everyone has forgotten about it. That particular media storm highlights two key aspects of crisis management – that it’s imperative to avoid knee-jerk responses and that you should stick to your own communication guidelines.
Doing the right thing seems so easy when watching a media fiasco from the comfort of one’s mobile phone. “Why on earth didn’t they just do X?”, we wonder, with a roll of our eyes and a pitying smile. But, of course, when you’re the one in the middle of it all, nothing is clear. It’s very hard to concentrate when your brand is under attack from an angry mob on social media or you are receiving threatening emails. If one particularly loud faction is urging a course of action, it’s very tempting to give in and take it. Nonetheless, whenever the pressure is on, that’s exactly when you need to take a breath.
It’s always a good idea to call in a third party in these situations. My own experience of running a business, when we’ve had a few difficult moments of our own, has shown how valuable an advisor with no emotional connection to the problem can be. A detached outsider can help you gain perspective and challenge you to justify any decisions that you may be making on the spur of the moment.
As communications advisors we’ve worked with clients dealing with all sorts of awkwardness, from insolvency and job losses to death and scandal. We have also helped people who have found themselves attracting the wrong sort of attention from a consumer programme. On one occasion this involved persuading an individual that admitting responsibility and putting right the problem was a better course of action than engaging a libel lawyer.
"My own experience of running a business, when we’ve had a few difficult moments of our own, has shown how valuable an advisor with no emotional connection to the problem can be."Xanthe Vaughan Williams
There’s no one silver bullet to handling a crisis, but there are some rules which, if you follow them, should prevent you from making things worse. So if you’re ever in a pickle, take a quick look at this list – and give serious thought to phoning a comms advisor for help.
- Get the facts straight
Before you make any official statement, find out as much as you can about what’s happened. Sometimes facts can be thin on the ground, such as when an operational disaster is unfolding. But on no account speculate. Saying something like, “I’m sure that it can’t be a problem with our production,” can land you in much deeper trouble later on if you’re wrong. If you don’t know, then reassure people that you’re looking into it.
- Tell your colleagues first
The people you work with will not only care about your crisis, they will be on the front line of your external communications. If you inform them late, or not at all, you will create an army of negative propagandists ready to spread bad news about their employer. Make sure they know what’s happened, what you’re doing about it, and what they should say if anyone outside the organisation asks them a question. A written statement, along with a Question and Answer document, is a good starting point.
- Fix the problem
It’s more important to focus your attention on the problem itself rather than trying to give the media a good impression of your organisation. If something has gone wrong with a project, what are you going to do about it? If it’s a product problem, are you going to do a recall? If there are job losses, are you handling them fairly and according to best practice?
- Play it straight and don’t overshare
If a journalist has contacted you about your crisis, provide them with plain facts (free from self-justification) as soon as possible. If you decide against the safe option of handing them a written statement, keep the conversation short and above all to the point. And if no journalists have contacted you, keep your statement at the ready but resist the temptation to issue it without being asked.
- Remember this too will pass
It’s important to bear in mind that the vast majority of social media frenzies die away quickly. In the meantime, issue regular updates and respond to individual comments, using your statement as a guide. Respond to valid individual queries if you can, but if the volume becomes too high, then consider the option of simply issuing general posts.
Xanthe is a co-founder and director of Fourth Day PR