Crisis communications – where to start?

16 November 2016

View Charley Newnham's profile on LinkedIn

The opportunities to learn from the crisis leadership experience of others are few and far between, but a couple of weeks ago I was privileged to hear someone talk about their recent experience in a powerful way.

Crisis communications is a subject where companies are facing greater scrutiny of their approach; are they hiding too much, are they giving too much away too early, who is saying what and in what way? These are just a few of the issues that organisations face and they are trying to understand what the best approach will be for them.

High profile incidents are occurring on a daily basis and the media gives us an opportunity to witness different approaches each business is taking. Ultimately, some seem even less prepared for an eventuality, which should be seen as part of senior management’s responsibility and could easily be picked up in any regular crisis management programme.

What was brilliant about learning more from this person was that as well as facing a lot of press attention, the approach their organisation used went against most things that we find quoted in the more “rigid” approaches that we all know rarely survive contact with a real crisis.

This leader simply confirmed that a well-polished and documented crisis communications strategy with values, principles, leaders, prepared statements and templates serves to equip us – but there is no substitute for having practised with those materials before a real crisis happens. As organisational leaders morph into crisis leaders they must be flexible and react to the changing situation. Short of real-world experience, practising responses against a number of scenarios is what creates understanding and confidence within the leaders that will need to do it in real time, in the real world, facing the possibility of real consequences.

Given this, developing practice scenarios (or crisis leadership exercises) should be based on more than what type of event is flavour of the month – for example, cyber attacks, physical events, product recalls – but should reflect simultaneous challenges such as intense timeframes, scalability, unfavourable media coverage, changes in management, customer reactions, different media responses etc. After all, no two crises are the same and the demands put on the organisation will differ from one minute and person to the next.

The focus needs to be on the individuals and teams and how they will communicate over time, taking into account the different impacts their actions (and messages, explicit or implied) have on their operational capabilities, their people, and all their key stakeholders, as well as the way they may be perceived on social and more traditional media. The response must also focus on the potential longer term impact the incident may have on their reputation and organisational legitimacy.

As a very first step for those struggling to know where to start with crisis communications, I find the following questions useful:

  • What do our key stakeholders expect of us?
  • How transparent do we need/want to be?
  • What messages do we want to put out and what are the potential implications of these messages?
  • How do we want our stakeholders to feel about us?
  • What are the potential implications of information we do not plan to communicate?
  • Who will be the voice(s) of the response?
  • Who is media-trained for crises?
  • How will the correct messages filter up through the organisation’s response?

I would love to hear what sort of training you are giving senior management in relation to crisis communications. Truly effective training can often be uneasy, with high pressure on the individuals and teams, but if done in a safe, secure and supportive environment, the rewards will be of huge benefit to your organisation’s response capability. This is particularly the case for companies which are likely to face more public scrutiny.

So… crisis communications… have you practised who will be involved? Is there an agreed approach as to what type of organisation you want to portray?  Have you researched what your critical stakeholders expect from you?

Ensuring you give your stakeholders the information they expect is the first step in a journey to protect your reputation whilst the eyes are on you.

Tom Wootton | Enterprise Resilience

View Charley Newnham's profile on LinkedIn

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