Communications expert Andy Berry on how to protect your reputation when the balloon goes up
It was the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger who once famously said: “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” And that’s just one of the problems with crises; they come when you least expect them.
But what exactly is a crisis? Often, the answer is simple; a profit warning, a major accident on company premises or the discovery of a significant safety fault in a product. But so many crises are now a result of less tangible events which impact your company’s reputation but are incredibly difficult to anticipate. By way of an example, it’s a fairly safe bet that in their no-doubt exhaustive crisis management training Volkswagen didn’t consider the possibility of the existential threat brought about by their own manipulation of emissions figures for their cars.
So, in over 30 years of working with companies on crises of all types, by far the best definition of a crisis that I have yet to hear is: you’ll know it when you see it!
And it’s this very challenge – what exactly shall we plan for? – that causes the first and most common problem for companies undertaking crisis management planning. They become too focused on planning for the sort of crisis that they expect and miss the point entirely that, when it comes, the crisis will, by its very nature, almost certainly be unexpected both as to type and timing. As any military strategist worth his salt might say, learn the lessons from the last war, but prepare to fight the next war.
This means that the most valuable preparation you can do as part of your crisis management planning is to avoid focusing unduly on the type of crisis, but rather make sure that your plans are focused on the entirely practical challenges that will present themselves.
First and foremost, who needs to be made aware – and do you have contact details for them at all times? Who is authorised to sign off the inevitable statements that you’ll be pressed for from the first minute by the media? It’s all very well assuming that the CEO will be available at the drop of the proverbial hat – but what if your CEO is unavailable or, indeed, the cause of the crisis? In my experience, far too few companies plan adequately for ‘death and disgrace’ crises, and as a result find themselves pathetically slow to respond when the balloon goes up.
Once a crisis hits, what exactly do you do first? Having advised and gathered your crisis team, firstly consider who is affected by the crisis; customers, staff, suppliers, regulators, shareholders and wider stakeholders are just some of those who will need to be communicated with. Get the facts as quickly as you can and get ready to communicate both to those affected and your wider stakeholder group.
If you’re in the fortunate position that you become aware of the crisis before it has become public knowledge you’ll have the luxury of being able to plan the communications approach; identifying the most appropriate method, content and timing for each audience. But accept that you may be in reactive mode, perhaps becoming aware of the crisis as a result of a journalist’s call, or a spike in social media activity.
If you don’t have the luxury of time available to plan, don’t delay in saying something, even if it’s only a holding statement: “We are aware of the situation and are investigating as a matter of urgency.” While it’s challenging to have to communicate when you’re not yet in possession of the full facts, in a world in which the media continuously hunts high and low for bad news (and in which trust is often lacking), silence may be construed as obstructiveness.
You now have a big decision to make. Who is going to be your spokesperson? My view has always been that the most senior person available should be the one to face the cameras, or at least to sign the various communications, particularly to customers. So please avoid the temptation to put forward your head of PR; audiences will, often with some justification, wonder whether they are witnessing a company trying to spin its way out of trouble.
And now the big question. Do you apologise? The lawyers will advise that you don’t, arguing that to do so only increases the chance of lawsuits. Listen to them, by all means. But then apologise. It’s about doing the right thing. And if you’re seen to do your level best to be open, honest and contrite, you have a half-decent chance of emerging with your reputation somewhere near intact.
You may have to apologise even if, in your view, it’s not entirely your fault. An example of this is after the loss of customer data following a cyber attack. You have suffered as a result of the malicious actions of a third party, so might feel that there’s no need to say “We’re sorry”. But that would be to miss the point; your customers entrusted you with their data and reasonably expected you to guard it on their behalf. You’ve let them down. So, say sorry!
Be sure to monitor social media. Yes, it’s an echo chamber which many will tell you is inhabited only by trolls and fools, but it also feeds into print media, and increasingly frequently becomes the home of some of the most damaging crisis-related comments. Much of the heat generated on Twitter and Facebook can be disregarded, but an important part of your crisis preparation is to identify your key Twitter followers and to build relationships, even if they perhaps don’t always appear to be in your corner.
In conclusion, no one in their right mind enjoys a crisis, and they can inflict severe reputational and financial damage on your company. But, with the right preparation and a commitment to an open and honest approach to communicating with those affected, you and your company will survive.
And you just might emerge with your reputation enhanced as a result.
Andy Berry is founder of Metalico Consulting. He is a former investment banker and strategic communications adviser who has helped companies and government bodies on some of the highest profile crises of recent years.