Five keys to navigating a crisis communications response
Updated: Jun 9
By Tara Mulholland, Account Director
The most important factor in determining the success of a business’ crisis communications response – and how well its reputation might come out on the other side – is preparation. By failing to prepare, you really are preparing to fail.
We constantly see examples of how organisations respond publicly to a crisis – the good, the bad and the downright ugly – with PwC’s recent PR disaster a classic example of how failure to respond quickly and transparently can lead to big impacts on the bottom line.
While it is considerably easier as an onlooker to point out what works well and what doesn’t when not in the eye of the crisis storm ourselves, there are a few key lessons we can takeaway from others’ experiences to improve our own crisis communications.
1. Know your stakeholders
Organisations that don’t understand their audiences or have established channels for communicating with them are quickly exposed in the face of a crisis, as they are left scrambling to pull the pieces together.
Those organisations that know their audiences, what connects with them, where they get their information from and therefore best ways to reach them are already a step ahead in being able to both monitor and respond effectively. Those that don’t are at risk of being slow to respond, coming across tone-deaf or completely excluding groups of stakeholders – all of which are a recipe for reputational damage.
As a crisis unfolds, keeping this communication and monitoring stakeholder sentiments is also crucial.
A textbook example of not ‘reading the room’ was the former PM showing up for a photo opportunity at the scene of the bushfires in the Bega Valley. Showing up with cameras angered some of the tired and frustrated local residents who were calling out for a compassionate response and information about the support they would receive. Things did not improve when he brushed off the reception he received.
Being visible is of course crucial – more on that in a minute - but it is the genuine and ongoing stakeholder communications and commitment to engagement that trumps all.
Keep in mind too that the response may not end when the crisis is ‘over’ - there are times when an incident significantly impacts upon a community or stakeholder group and the communications and engagement required may be long after the event.
2. Show humanity Quickest way to take the heat out of situation where there are upset or enraged stakeholders? Show some humanity.
There is time and place for corporate messaging and industry jargon and a heated situation isn’t it. Genuine care and empathy shines through no matter how well-crafted your key messages are.
Be human, connect with people, have empathy. This is something PwC did demonstrate well in their recent statement across range of channels.
A simple yet genuine sorry also goes a long way – deflecting responsibility won’t do you any favours. A transparent and heartfelt apology is a valuable thing when something has gone seriously wrong, and it holds the most weight when it comes from the top.
Which brings us to…
3. Demonstrate leadership
When the you-know-what hits the fan and people are feeling uncertainty or panic, they want to know someone is steering the ship.
In a significant event that impacts a lot of people, employees and public stakeholders alike expect to hear from a leader. Think about when the plane you are on goes through some rough turbulence - that calm and confident pilot’s voice is often the reassurance everyone needs.
A good spokesperson will show humanity as well as strength and the ability to inspire confidence. Not all leaders show these attributes naturally when facing the media – which is where presentation and media training is so valuable.
By being upfront, expressing feeling and communicating the information that they can, leaders can help to calm the situation and reduce rumours and speculation. The reality is, if your organisation is not putting the messages out in a crisis, other commentators will be quick to fill the gap. Make sure they hear it from the source wherever possible.
4. Be timely
If ever there was a time to cut back on the 5,000 eyes running over a communications piece for approval, it’s a crisis.
It is crucial that the messages you put out there are correct, appropriate and have all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed especially from a legal perspective – but this process needs to be streamlined. When it comes to the crunch, your audiences and the media may get increasingly agitated the longer they wait for your organisation to respond.
This is exactly what crisis exercises are for – get everything running like a well-oiled machine where everyone knows their roles and limit the confusion and duplication.
Don’t wait for a crisis to hit. Get on the front foot, get strong communications programs happening with your external and internal audiences and be prepared for anything.
Why did Optus cop so much flak for the way it handled its data breach? Due to both slowness and lack of customer communications, many impacted people got their information from the media and not from the company they pay their bills to and who had their data.
Medibank then had the advantage of learning from this failure and being on the front foot with its customers. It is possible they, along with many other companies, put the time in behind the scenes to prepare their crisis communications responses and run exercises specifically around data breach scenarios.
5. Get the right resources in place
Is your current team recently and regularly trained in crisis communications? Have you got established channels for quick communications and a plan to activate? Are your contacts up to date?
Test your crisis communications plan, update if needed, make sure everyone knows their role and make sure you have the templates ready to go.
And, this goes without saying, but get your trusted PR agency on speed dial!