A business crisis is not a new phenomenon. It’s been happening since businesses have been getting things wrong and making mistakes. So basically, as long as there have been people in business…
As such, crisis communications and crisis PR is not new. The principles I’m going to talk about below could be applied across almost any type of crisis and reputation management scenario.
What is new, is the causes of many of these crises, their prevalence, and the speed in which a crisis can escalate.
Managing communication and PR in a crisis
I’ll begin by saying that each crisis is unique, and will require its own response. However, the principles of crisis communication can be applied across most scenarios. In addition, the size of each crisis is different and therefore the scale of your response and your communication needs to be relative to that. For example, don’t take a full page advert in the national press if you’ve got 300 customers affected by a small data issue.
Things Not to do
First and foremost, panic doesn’t help anyone. If you panic, your communication is very often rushed and clumsy. When Talk Talk suffered a cyber attack in 2015, from an external perspective at least there was a definite sense of panic. TV interviews were given which exaggerated the scale of the issue, and this actually caused greater stress to customers.
Don’t bury your head in the sand
If you have a genuine issue, it’s very unlikely to just go away! You need to address the issue head on and deal with it.
What should you do in crisis communications?
The first thing to do is to take ownership. This can be challenging and can feel difficult, because if you’ve been the subject of a malicious cyber-attack it might not feel like your fault. However, there are very few quicker ways to erode trust in you and your business than not taking responsibility. From a communication perspective we use the three A’s:
You need to begin by acknowledging that the crisis has happened/is happening. This begins the whole communication process, because you’re letting people know that there’s something not right.
Accept responsibility. Whether you’ve been attacked by an external source, or an internal mistake has caused the crisis, you must accept full responsibility for dealing with the issues that arise from it and protect your customers’ data at all costs. At this stage, you need to work with your lawyers to ensure that the wording of your communication doesn’t prejudice anything unnecessarily in future, as well as making it clear that you see it as your responsibility to address the issue.
There are very few things which can diffuse situations than a genuine apology. It isn’t the only thing, but by saying sorry early and categorically, you show that you care and that you want to fix the issue. Saying sorry goes a long way.
If you give a crisis the opportunity to develop its own story, then it probably will. Communicating quickly, puts you in control.
Now, communicating quickly should not be confused with rushing and sending out an ill-informed communication on social media, email or in the press. You need to ensure that you have right advice from your legal team, and your PR team, ensuring your customers and partners are confident that you’re handling the situation.
Ideally any communication should go out within 24 hours. The reason you need to communicate quickly is because in a social media driven world, once a story has started, it’s very hard to get it back under control, and it’s even harder to set the agenda for the story. If you’re the first with the news, then you can be the home for the story, the place where genuine and reliable information can be found. Even in a crisis situation you can be the trusted source.
But not too quickly!
As I say, communicating quickly doesn’t mean you have to guess and it doesn’t mean you have to open your company up to law suits later. So, quickly, yes, becoming the source for information on the crisis, yes. Rushed and clumsy communication before we know the facts – no.
Once the initial communication has happened, you’re likely going to conduct an investigation. How, what, when, who is going to be looked at to ascertain what damage has been done and how it can be fixed and improved on next time.
However, there’s nothing more unnerving or suspicious than radio silence!
All the good work of initial response which is quick, and which owns the crisis can be undone by a lack of ongoing communication.
This is also your opportunity to rebuild trust after the inevitable dip after a crisis. If you can show that your business is doing the right things to address a problem, and you’re being open about how and what’s happening, this is a significant trust repairer. On a practical basis using your website, social media and email is an effective way of managing this communication.
Using social media and customer feedback to help you manage your crisis is key.
In the first instance, make sure you’re monitoring any hashtags or keywords on social media and in the press. You want to understand what’s being said, and where appropriate, respond to either reassure or correct, if information is incorrect.
In addition to directing people to the correct information, listening may also help you to further understand and investigate the crisis. If it’s a data hack, you may be able to learn more about how that data is being used. This active listening, response and reaction, shows how omitted you are as a business in responding to and resolving issues arising from the crisis.
Involve the team
You need to communicate internally! If you’ve got your PR statements all detailed and your social media strategy in place, but you haven’t spoken to the guys answering the phone, then your communication isn’t going to work.
You need to communicate to the team on how you’re dealing with the crisis, and you need to give everyone across the business the tools and information to communicate effectively about the crisis.
Prepare for a backlash
If you’ve suffered a crisis, and it’s affected your customers then you’re probably not going to get away without negative comment and reaction.
You need to ensure that the team and the business is prepared for this, and is ready to respond in a way which helps customers and the business. The principles of ownership, saying sorry and transparency are likely to be good guides here.
Make it Human
This one’s simple. A business crisis is a crisis because it affects people. How, will depend on your business and the nature of the crisis. But in the same way that people buy from people, an apology from a person, on a video, is hugely more powerful than a statement with no name attached!
In this situation it’s also important to make sure it’s a leader in the business that’s taking ownership and communicating to customers. This shows that the business is taking it seriously. Don’t leave it to the social media executive to deal with!
Have a plan
The final thing, and you could probably start with this, is to have a plan. If something goes wrong, how are you going to handle it? This plan is going to cover more than just crisis PR and crisis communications, but in order to stop us from panicking and getting things wrong in the first instance, having a plan and direction for our communications will enable us to make sure we cover everything off.