Everybody loves a crisis don’t they? Whilst a lot of people thrive in a crisis, in reality they are business events companies should actively strive to avoid. While trying to avoid crises should obviously be the priority, planning on how to react when the unexpected happens is crucial.
Fail to plan; plan to fail!
The above statement is certainly true in a lot of company cases. You see what actually happens is that a negative incident or event occurs. The senior management team thinks that it may get some sort of press attention either locally or nationally. They then run round like headless chickens trying to respond to press enquiries!
Being unprepared could potentially damage the company’s reputation, brand, and share price. This is not just bad business practice; it is often tantamount to career suicide.
There can be no doubt that when a crisis occurs it has some sort of cost, whether this is human or asset. Most crises are unfortunate and if it had been possible then they would have been avoided. However the company needs to protect its reputation whilst sympathising with the individuals that have suffered because of the situation. If unsympathetic the organisation can, and often does, come across as the big bad wolf.
BP has been vilified for its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. More than two years on from the original disaster the company is still paying – both in terms of fines, liabilities and reputation damage.
Even a ‘simple product recall’ knocked billions of dollars off Toyota’s share price, reduced its sales growth due to a collapse in customer confidence and diminished the value of the brand as a whole.
So how does a company handle a crisis situation? Quite simple – plan for them! You may be an organisation that will spend of all of its existence without any crisis at all. But maybe, just maybe, one day it will happen to you. When it does, it helps to have a plan.
When disaster strikes, the first thing you need to do is follow the words immortalised by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t Panic!”
The second thing is to turn to your crisis management planning document. And if you haven’t already created a crisis plan, now is the time to start.
What do you mean by a crisis plan?
It’s simple -it’s just a straightforward document that outlines exactly what you need to do in a crisis It will usually contain information such as:
- How you should respond
- Your communications experts
- The communication route
- The key people that are authorised to speak to the media
- The approval process for press releases
- The key local and national media outlets
- Where you turn to for professional advice
- Key documents that are needed – such as questions and answers
The plan should also cover the following eight points :
- Be prepared. Contingency plans are a good start to help avoid disaster, but don’t let them fool you into thinking that you have thought of all eventualities. It may be unpleasant to think of, but if you are in business for long enough the unforeseen will happen. How you respond to it is what will define the future of the company and its brand.
- Pre-select and pre-empower crisis teams. Crises develop at a frightening rate and do not respect holidays, time zones or internet connections. Individual team leaders and communications experts need to be identified and trained in advance so that when disaster strikes they can respond calmly and effectively.
- Imagine you are the customer. Brands are built upon trust and reputation. Everyone can forgive a mistake, even a large one, as long as it is dealt with swiftly and with integrity. People want to know the truth, and when that is not forthcoming goodwill can quickly turn to anger and resentment.
- Drop the Pink Elephant. Bill McFarlan, author of “Dropping the pink elephant: Fifteen ways to say what you mean”, has developed a few simple rules to help you communicate better – particularly useful during a crisis. The first of these, is to avoid unprompted denials – all they do is ensure that the audience thinks what you are denying is exactly what you have done.
- Regret-Reason-Remedy. McFarlan also suggests that when faced with disaster this three-step approach will add enormously to your communication efforts. First, you have to show that you are human: show empathy for those people affected and regret at what has happened. Many people fear legal consequences but showing that you understand the feelings of your customers is NOT the same admitting liability. Secondly, try and explain in straightforward terms what has happened – the reason. If you don’t yet know then say so, do not hide information that customers need to know. Lastly, get control of the situation by stating what you are now going to do to remedy the situation – and then do it!
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. At times of crisis, organisations often feel that a hostile press is attacking them. The temptation is to close the doors, call a meeting and ignore the ringing phones. Whilst it is important to establish your message, it is vital that you are seen to be communicating openly as soon as possible – speculation fills a vacuum! Communicate to your customers via the media but don’t forget the other key stakeholders including, for example, your own employees, suppliers, shareholders and joint venture partners.
- Know your message and stick to it. Most TV sound bites are about 30 seconds – aim to sum up your message in this time – that’s only about 90 words! Likewise don’t forget to take advantage of all the other media routes open to you including internet, radio, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter.
- Take control. A crisis can hurt but it can also be an opportunity to show what a fine organisation you are. If you handle a crisis well, the organisation will appear more human and more likable. A crisis can be an opportunity to enhance your brand!
Remember, it is not the disasters that are planned for that will destroy a company; it’s the crises that could not be foreseen.
If you don’t have a plan then you will almost certainly make mistakes.
And while it is fair to say that you may never come out of a crisis fully unscathed, with a plan you can certainly go a long way to limiting the damage.