Communicating in a Crisis

Communicating in a Crisis

Nobody enjoys a crisis, and when it hits an organisation, there are a cascade of potential consequences. Depending on the size of the crisis, it can pose an extreme threat to the whole of the organisation, loading on the pressure at many different levels of management, employee, or any stakeholders. In the worst case scenario, the crisis can start a domino effect of panic and stress that could even kill the organisation. Although we can’t know the specifics of the situation, from the press coverage, it appears that the “Kids Company” charity suffered just this kind of fate. It may be that pure bad financial management was the catalyst, but the situation rapidly spiraled out of control. Could the organisation have been saved? Well just maybe, if communication had worked effectively, and this means both internal and external communication and ability to respond to both.

“the crisis can start a domino effect of panic and stress”

The important thing about internal communication, is that if it works effectively, problems and faults in the mechanics of the organisation are far more likely to be spotted and addressed earlier, and thus more likely to avert serious consequence. If communication is poor, and individuals or small groups end up working in silos, then there is a great deal of room for errors to grow bigger and bigger without intervention. We only have to think of rogue traders, such as Nick Leeson, who piled error on top of error, without communication, until he eventually brought down Barings Bank, having lost $1.4 Billion. Its an extreme example, but on a much smaller scale the same errors can occur in any organisation. Communication is a safety net. Good communication means effective and transparent working practices at the appropriate levels of management. No single individual is going to avoid errors, we will all make them. The very best entrepreneurs praise their own errors as the most important learning opportunities that they have encountered. Mistakes will happen. Good communication will allow our colleagues to help spot those mistakes and minimise risk.

“Communication is a safety net”

Yet sometimes crisis is precipitated not by poor internal communication, but perhaps by pure chance, bad luck, or it could be as simple as managing a brand change. A brand change is a conscious decision to take an organisation is different direction. It will already have an audience used to the old brand, so like it or not, its going to upset people, even if its the best brand change designed by the finest minds, it will still upset people. If you are dealing with bad luck, then as long as you  communicate this effectively, the vast majority of your audience will understand, but some will never be satisfied, because they don’t wish to be. You will always have the naysayers, and they will be the loudest.

So what do you do if you’ve got an issue with your audience? Perhaps a product has let your audience down in some way or a brand has changed, the net result is a disgruntled audience, and you want to keep your audience/customers happy. The most important thing to do initially, is to sit down with all responsible parties and work out why the situation has arisen. Learn the lessons quickly. Has there been a failure of communication to date? Is there some significance to why it has happened now?

“Learn the lessons quickly”

Once you have discovered why the situation has arisen, you need to formulate the best response, an honest and meaningful explanation of why you are in the position you are in. There is no point in lying or being disingenuous, because it will most likely result in even worse consequences down the line. This is the time to be utterly honest with each other and your audience, albeit in the right way. Your audience do not need to know about your internal wranglings over your brand change, they just need to know it was done for all the right reasons and with the best intentions and will achieve the best result. We’ve all seen the recent PR disaster for VW, we can come to our own conclusions as to how well they have responded. Through the filter of the press it looks as though they are not being entirely honest with themselves, let alone the public, and if that is not the case, then there should be a clear statement of where the errors lay.

The likelihood is that most of your audience will understand your reasoning if it is well thought through, honest and well reasoned. You need to issue your statement, which is clearly visible through your usual channels of communication with your audience. As this may be a rapid response situation, then this is likely to be on your website, facebook page, other online places that you inhabit, and you will probably be tweeting a link. If there is a high level of outrage, then it is also likely that you will need to offer opportunity for direct communication with your audience, perhaps through an online question and answer.

“Issue a well thought through, honest and well reasoned statement”

If there are product issues to address, then they also need to be addressed as quickly as possible, or if can’t be quick, to give your audience a timetable. There will still be a vocal minority who will disagree with your message and this is exactly where you have to be strong as an organisation and strong in leadership. That vocal minority will not represent the majority of your audience, if you allow their emotional levels to sway you from your path, you are likely to lose the majority in order to appease the minority.

In short:
– Be clear in your message
– Be calm in your internal discussions
– Ensure that the message is understood internally amongst all the staff
– Be fast in response to your audience
– Present a carefully thought through and clearly expressed statement
– Offer reasonable levels of direct communication with your audience within your capacity
– Stick to your guns, do not let the vocal minority run your organisation
– The only exception to the last is if you have made a mistake!
– Remember the storm will pass, and if your message was right, it will pass quicker

Posted in crisis communications, Public Relations.

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