When things go wrong the natural response is to ask why it happened. If we don’t get a satisfactory answer to that question, or worse still, no answer at all, we start to fill in the gaps ourselves by speculating why and how things went wrong. This is the trap that some organisations fall into when they have to deal with a problem in the full gaze of the public. Creating a void is the first step to losing control of the situation - something that is very difficult to recover once it’s gone.
Crisis management is a necessary and important business function and, when it comes to the operational side of addressing the problem, businesses are often very adept, responding quickly, professionally and effectively. It is vital though that communication is a key part of the organisation’s crisis management strategy. In today’s 24/7 news cycle and with prolific use of social media channels, the communications void can open up almost instantly if an organisation isn’t ready or prepared to talk. And preparation is everything.
At first it might seem strange to plan what you might say about something that hasn’t or may never happen. It may even seem a little inappropriate, when actually it is a highly responsible and considerate way to behave. All organisations have a plan in the event of a fire, with the evacuation route clearly displayed for staff and visitors to see. It is even practised regularly to ensure everyone knows the plan. The fire may never happen, but everyone would agree that it would be irresponsible to be unprepared. The same is true for crisis communications.
Most organisations can plan and prepare for some of the things that could go wrong. For instance, a retailer may find that a major supplier goes bust or a car manufacturer has a safety recall. Whatever the problem, most businesses will have considered the steps they would need to take and assigned responsibilities before they actually happen. This is when they should also think about how they might communicate - who do they need to talk to and what will they want to know? What channels should the organisation use to reach them and who in the organisation should it come from? While it is impossible to plan crisis communications in detail, having an agreed strategy enables an organisation to move swiftly and take control when things do go wrong. Sam Hope, Director, institute of Media Arts, explains:
“If you acknowledge and respond to a problem, you show you care. It is also better if you do it without being asked and are honest and straightforward in the way you communicate. These are the simple lessons that good businesses and organisations adopt to provide information under difficult circumstances. There is also the flip side, for example in the world of politics, we often see people avoiding an issue and then providing an obtuse response. This only serves to frustrate voters and the media. In turn it inflates the issue into a crisis with potentially damaging consequences for the reputation of the individual or party.”
The principles of good crisis communication are simple, but when they are put into practice their impact is far reaching and long lasting. If businesses fail to protect their reputation, it can impact negatively on the bottom line. Increasingly, organisations are investing more in crisis communications to help manage the impact. A recent development in the United States serves to highlight how it has become an essential business function. Chartis, which is part the US insurance giant AIG, has launched a new policy designed to help organisations protect their reputation in the event of a major crisis by providing access to a panel of crisis communication experts. According to Chartis, this product is primarily aimed at small to medium sized organisations who may not have the in-house capability to deal with such an issue, but nevertheless want to be prepared to deal with potential threats to their reputation.
Sam Hope concludes: “The fact that this insurance policy is being marketed to small to medium sized companies underlines that effective crisis communication is necessary for any organisation and is not just the preserve of major global corporations. Badly executed crisis communication can seriously damage a brand. Even global corporations get it wrong – BP lost billions of pounds, as well as its CEO, in 2010 when an oil rig explodedin the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting of loss of life and environmental disaster, was seen to be handled insensitively on the world stage, seriously damaging the company’s credibility.
"At the University of Wolverhampton we have provided media training for a variety of businesses in the private and public sectors. In the example of a retail company we provided the groundwork for defending their products on a consumer TV programme. For the health service we assisted in preparation for the potential of a pandemic, such as swine flu. Reputation has become an increasingly valuable commodity and those that fail to plan ahead and develop a crisis communication strategy are exposing their organisation to a high degree of risk.”