If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we’re most vulnerable to what we least predict. Any diligent organisation will have a risk register, detailing what might go wrong and how likely that is to happen. But in today’s unpredictable world, when a crisis can stem from a badly thought-out tweet or a come-out-of-nowhere global pandemic, it can be difficult to know where to start.
It is possible, however, to prepare for the unpreparable. To make sure your organisation has the internal mechanisms in place to respond to a new threat quickly and effectively. For smaller organisations, with limited personnel resource and higher vulnerability to a crisis representing an existential threat, it’s best to keep a crisis communication plan as simple as possible. This way a small team can make quick decisions and roll out communications as effectively as possible. This ultimately comes down to teamwork.
Before a crisis you need to decide the following things:
- Who is going to gather information?
- Who is going to write the message and who is going to sign it off?
- Who you need to tell the message to?
- How will you get it to them and what do you need to do that?
At Whitehouse’s recent crisis recovery seminar, I laid out the following Do’s and Don’t’s for communicating in a crisis.
Do communicate and quickly. There’s a void out there and if you don’t speak into it, someone else will. This might be your customers asking what’s happened on social media, it could be a competitor using it as an opportunity to gain publicity, or it could be a key stakeholder speculating on what is going on. To misquote Alistair Campbell, you have fifteen minutes to kill a story. The reality is that you do not ‘kill’ a story unless you have an unusual form of power over the media. You manage it and the best way to do so is be open and honest, with the needs of your stakeholders front of mind.
Do understand your stakeholders. Talking of stakeholders, you need to know who they are and what they need to hear. This is a simple piece of planning that can help you map out your priority calls when a crisis does occur. An important investor, for example, wants to hear a reassurance from your CEO before they see the speculation on twitter. Show them that love.
Do take some time to ask who is the victim? Even if internally you agree that you – the organisation – is the real victim here, the outside world might think otherwise. Demonstrating that you understand the victim’s needs and are planning to support them will help you start to frame a positive narrative in your first steps towards recovery. This must be genuine, as they will quickly see through any empty gesture.
Don’t pull down the hatches. This sounds obvious. Of course, no one intends to pull down the hatches. But the reality is that, if you were not expecting an issue and do not have the right mechanisms in place, it can be difficult for the comms team, the CEO and the Board to decide between them what to say. Then the hours drift by and before you know it someone else has filled the void (see above!)
Don’t shift blame. Yes, if you know that someone else is to blame of course you want to shout it from the roof tops. But coming off as defensive is the worst thing you can do right now. A ‘sorry this has happened’ (which, by the way, will not necessarily tie you in knots from a legal perspective) and a commitment to a project of self-introspection cannot be remiss, and is a chance for you to clear your name.
Don’t forget your staff! They are often the first interface with the public, media, social media. They need to know what the message is and they need to agree with it. Having the right organisational culture lies at the heart of this, of course, but if you forget to address them directly in that moment of crisis it will likely cause short-term stress and uncertainty and a long-term drop in morale.
The Whitehouse team are experts in the impact of global crises, providing crisis communications, risk management and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.