The crisis around the corner

All of us at some time will have watched with a mix of horror - and a degree of glad-it-is-not-me sympathy - as a floundering Chief Executive or company spokesperson gets eviscerated by the media during the midst of a corporate crisis which has engulfed them. Corporate and personal reputations can be shattered in moments and take years to repair at great expense. In extreme cases, businesses go bust.

Given the risks involved, commercial as much as reputational, you would think that most companies would be well prepared for the crisis around the corner: in reality, most are not. Why? Perhaps it is some form of corporate cognitive dissonance: companies know there are potential crises all around them, but the thought of those crises is so awful they prefer to ignore them. Perhaps it is the relentless daily pressure on management time and thinking from actually running the business that pushes crisis planning into the “nice to do at some point” box.

Either way preparing to manage a crisis is your reputation insurance policy. Just like any other form of insurance you hope you will never have to call upon it, but if ever you do you will be glad you made the investment.

Gravitas PR has worked with several of its clients to get them crisis ready. Some sectors and companies are more at risk of serious reputational risk than others, but all businesses should assess the degree to which they are crisis ready. Below are some top tips to help you assess if you are prepared for that crisis around the corner and the potential interview on the six o’clock news or appearance before a committee of MPs. If you cannot tick all the boxes then call Gravitas PR to talk about how we can help.

Tip 1: have a crisis plan ready to deploy

The “we’ll deal with it when it happens” approach is the worst way of handling a crisis. People panic. They do the wrong things with the best intentions. Your crisis plan allows you to approach a crisis with order, discipline and an agreed set of procedures.

It can be quite basic or highly sophisticated, with all sorts of scenarios already developed and thought through. The key point is to have a plan which is sufficiently robust for the potential crises your business may face. So, identify those potential crises, develop how best to respond and keep the plan updated.

Tip 2: have an agreed crisis team with clearly defined responsibilities

Your crisis plan should identify members of the crisis team and their responsibilities: large enough to reflect diverse cross-functional thinking, but small enough to act quickly. That team may include external PR and Legal advisers. Remember a crisis is not, by definition, an ordinary event and therefore the usual “chain of command” may not apply: the crisis team needs to be empowered to respond to the crisis outside of the usual line management structures.

Think about how that team can come together if a crisis arises: will you need a crisis room? If so, what equipment will you need? If necessary do you know how you will back-fill their roles whilst the crisis lasts?

Tip 3: have a nominated company spokesperson(s) in place and communicate regularly both internally and externally

Ideally, those nominated to speak on behalf of the company with journalists will have been media trained. If it is a major crisis then people will expect to hear from the Chief Executive, not an anonymous spokesperson. That person will need to be readily available to respond to media enquiries and feel comfortable and confident doing so. They need to be visible and accessible.

Remember to keep employees and other stakeholders, such as suppliers, regularly informed and updated. Remind colleagues about media contact protocols and use of social media.

Tip 4: monitor, evaluate and respond

The crisis team will need to monitor how the company’s stakeholders are reacting to the crisis and their perceptions about how the company is managing the situation. That should not simply be traditional media coverage, but also employee and supplier reactions and social media traffic.

If a crisis struck your company tomorrow would you be ready to monitor and evaluate its response? Would you have the resources to be able to respond to adverse (and perhaps inaccurate) coverage in traditional and social media?

Tip 5: stick to facts, never speculate and be prepared

Confusion is often present at the start of any crisis: it is the responsibility of the crisis team to establish the facts and ensure the nominated spokesperson is fully briefed. They in turn need to stick to confirmed facts, minimise speculation and address rumours head on. They also need to be advised about what information they can legally, morally and ethically divulge at any given moment.

The “facts” during every crisis evolve as more information is gathered. The crisis team therefore has to be highly disciplined in determining what is a “fact” and what advice they can then give to the company’s spokesperson.

On the basis of the known facts the crisis team has to decide what kind of communications strategy the company should adopt. There are numerous options from denial through to acceptance and it is important that each option is assessed fully. In that context it is helpful to have a dispassionate external PR professional on hand as part of the team to provide advice on the pros and cons of each option.

Tip 6: be prepared to acknowledge if you are wrong and put right the wrong

Nothing damages reputation more than a perception that an individual or company is trying to weasel out of its responsibilities: that’s why establishing the facts quickly is vital. If you are at fault, take legal advice, admit the error, apologise and set out how you will put matters right.

Tip 7: record decisions and learn lessons

After the heat of the moment has passed it can be difficult to recall why exactly a particular decision was taken, so record decisions and the reasons why they were taken. After the crisis has passed conduct an After Action Review to assess what went well and what did not. Record what you have learned and ensure new members of the crisis team are familiar with the crisis handling history of your company.

If all of this sounds a bit daunting then talk to Gravitas as we can guide you through the process so that you can be as prepared as you need to be for that crisis lurking around the corner.