Crisis management and crisis communications can feel daunting for both communications professionals and those in crisis management teams working alongside those looking after crisis communications. I can remember the first few times I participated in crisis exercises at OSRL. I'm not ashamed to say I was a bit overwhelmed. I have more than 20 years experience in marketing and communications and the thought of being involved in a real, fast-moving crisis is still a slightly daunting one. And I'm in a much better position now than 20 years ago in terms of knowledge and experience.
This blog is the second version of my blog on crisis communications. I wrote the first one and then decided against publishing it. Why am I being open about that? Because I realised that I had completely ignored my own advice and not written from a human perspective the first time around.
This realisation came after my colleague Dave Rouse shared a blog written by Alistair Campbell covering the same topic. Here's the blog if you would like to read it.
Alistair Cambell is a writer, communicator, and strategist best known for his role as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman, press secretary, and director of communications and strategy. As I was reading it, politics aside, what struck me was how his passion for communications and his personality came through. With this in mind, I scrapped my original blog and rewrote it.
Reflecting on this, I do believe if there is one thing you should take away from my blog it is this - ultimately, in all communication, crisis or not, we are talking to people who have feelings. So our communications need to consider that human aspect, have that human voice.
Any crisis communications should tap into the very essence of this. If you were in the shoes of someone affected by a crisis, what you would want to hear and how you would like to feel – reassured, respected, understood. You can follow all my principles below and completely ignore the empathy point, and your communications will likely fail.
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand Prime Minister is an example of why empathetic communications works.
The world first witnessed and admired Ardern’s empathy during the Christchurch massacre in March, 2019. An Australian man opened fire targeting two mosques in Christchurch, where Muslims were gathering for their afternoon prayer. He killed 51 people.
In less than 24 hours, Ardern was on the ground in Christchurch. She wore a black headscarf as a sign of respect, and comforted devastated men and women. At that moment she felt the tragedy first as a human being and a leader. Her role as a politician was secondary. During COVID-19, when announcing lockdown, she appeared dressed in cozy, at home clothes apologising for her attire as “it is a messy business, putting a toddler to bed”. She was instantly relatable, likeable and conveyed a message of ‘we are in this together’. New Zealand managed to avoid the high level of COVID cases experienced in other countries. Many attribute this to Jacinda Ardern’s authentic and empathetic leadership style.
For many of us, over the last couple of years, I think we feel like we have been in a constant crisis. I remember writing the 99th internal communications COVID update and, with hindsight, tempting fate by writing the very sentence – this is the 99th update, I sincerely hope there won't be a 100th. A few weeks later, Omicron came into the UK, and the 100th update came out. Lesson learned – never tempt fate, especially in writing.
COVID aside, over the last couple of years, companies across the globe have needed to deal with various crises. Some were due to uncontrolled factors, others due to a lack of preparedness or a mistake. Most carried a level of reputational risk and led to a need for crisis communications.
Scenario planning and horizon scanning are essential and can identify response principles before a crisis event. Companies that are unprepared and respond slowly are most at risk of reputational damage in a crisis. The shareholder value impact of reputation crises has doubled since the advent of social media.
We live in a zero-tolerance, information-hungry world, with ever-present media searching for a good story. With the growth of social media and citizen journalists, news can sometimes break within minutes, even before an organisation knows all the facts. If companies do not take control of the narrative, it can quickly spiral out of control.
So with all the above in mind, I have summarised my ten crisis communication principles.
1. Plan, prepare and exercise
Identify your top three risks and build crisis communication plans that address these risks. These plans should align with your crisis management plan. Regularly exercise the plan at least once a year, and test the resources identified, including any external ones. Exercises identify any weaknesses and improve crisis communication skills. Practising means that everyone knows their roles and what is required when an incident happens.
Make crisis communications a core part of the Crisis Management Team. It is all too easy to treat communications as a side function, someone to brief once you have made all decisions. I have been in this position before – it doesn't work. You can't advise on communications strategy without the full context. And besides, we communications professionals are the nagging voice in your ear asking you to consider the reputational impacts of decisions and the needs of all stakeholders.
2. Tell it all, tell it fast, tell it honestly – own the narrative.
Keeping quiet is not an option; you need to control the message. Leaving a void allows rumour and speculation to build and gain momentum. The first source of communication often becomes the source against which stakeholders will measure all other communications. Building trust is essential when it comes to crisis communications. As the situation evolves, disseminate the latest information and facts widely. Tell the truth and tell it often. Make sure what you are saying is accurate – be 'the' credible source. Quick, open, and honest response benefits the road to recovery and ensures critical stakeholders have all the essential facts.
3. State priorities and focus on these in your communications.
Stick to the facts, do not sensationalise, or speculate. Confirm the actions you are taking to resolve the issue and return the business to normal. Communicating every step lets all key stakeholders know the status and trust that you are doing the right thing. Edelman lists sixteen critical attributes for building trust, and among them is 'taking responsible actions to address a crisis'. Provide instructing information quickly as well as adjusting and adapting information. Stakeholders need to know what they need to do (if applicable) and what you as an organisation are doing to address the situation.
4. Do not speculate; stick to key facts.
Collect and collate the key facts. Then develop the messages. Do not attempt to communicate any unknowns. Do not be afraid to say you do not know the answer. Company spokespeople should not speculate or give vague answers as a strategy. When the truth is out, and it always comes out, the company may have to explain why it made certain statements, leading to a secondary crisis. Spokespeople should say what they know and are allowed to disclose legally.
5. Be consistent
Messaging must be consistent and stick to the key messages and facts. If there is not any new information, say there isn't any. Do not leave a void. Media and other stakeholders may see this as deliberate or may try to fill the void. Never say "no comment". Pick the right spokesperson and use them consistently. Your spokesperson should be a senior person in the organisation. It does not have to be the CEO. The nature of the crisis will guide who is the most appropriate spokesperson. Choose thoughtfully based on seniority, industry and corporate knowledge, media skills, and ability to engage the public and engender a feeling of trust and understanding.
6. Do not forget the internal audience.
Employees are a vital stakeholder impacted by events. They are also the people you need to help you reach out to customers and other stakeholders and recover the business. In most situations, you should let your employees access the facts either before you release them to the outside world or at the same time. My preference would always be to let employees know first, but recognise there may be occasions where this is not possible.
7. Embrace the media
The media are not the enemy. I have spoken to too many people that see the media this way. Treated well, they can be an ally. The media can help get messages and information out to key stakeholders. A media engagement strategy should form a core part of your crisis communications plan, do not shy away from them. No comment to a media enquiry is not a good enough response and allows them to create their own story. Spokespeople must be ready to participate in interviews or provide comments last minute. And that means regular media training for all key spokespeople.
8. And that includes social media
Social media plays a significant role across all industries; no one is immune. You can't just ignore it and hope it will go away. In 2013, when I came for my interview with OSRL, one of the questions was regarding social media and how I would respond to comments. We had a good debate; my view at that time was opposite of my interviewers. I remember saying you can't just ignore social media. My interviewers were pretty nervous about engaging with social media. I must have said something right nearly nine years later, and I'm still here. And social media is an integral part of our crisis communications plans.
Social media channels should receive the same information as print and broadcast. There is a multitude of social media options out there. Think about where your audience is and pick two or three. Resist the urge to respond to every post unless you have a huge social media team that can manage all channels and respond to all comments. I suspect, even then, it would be a 24/7 effort for some time in a full-scale crisis.
9. Communicate with emotion and empathy
It helps if you show that you care, empathise with people, and understand their position. Cold and unemotional communications will make your brand appear emotionless and devoid of empathy. Put people first in all your communications, commit to resolving the situation and do not be afraid to use 'sorry'.
10. Ensure there is a plan to continue communications post-recovery
Crisis communications do not necessarily stop when a crisis resolves. There may be lingering effects and a need to manage or rebuild a reputation. Consider the communications and action you need to take to recover the business fully. You should view this as a long term strategy as rebuilding a reputation can take a significant amount of time.
You can't communicate your way out of a crisis you have created through poor judgement or avoidable errors. Reputations take years to build and moments to destroy.
Ultimately it is important to remember that communications are just one piece of the puzzle. An organisation needs to act rapidly, decisively, and with integrity in a crisis. Even the best communications can't hide a poor crisis response.