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Getting the basics right when a crisis breaks - Stage 1

Written by Mark Dailey and Matthew Moth

Entire books have been written about how to manage a crisis from a communications point of view and there is no doubt that the specialist expertise across our international network of operations can be extremely useful in helping refurbish and restore reputations, both corporate and celebrity.

But perhaps somewhat surprisingly the basics are fairly well…basic…and there’s a good deal of agreement about what they are. 

We always tell you that it is much easier to deal with a crisis if you know it is coming – that forewarned is forearmed.   Scenario planning, risk mitigation exercises, game theory and horizon scanning are standard operating procedures for many companies and are integral parts of good business planning. 

But two pieces of bad news….

First, with the lightning pace of change and rampant uncertainty becoming the new norm, our ability to plan and manage, never mind ‘predict’ crises, has been rocked.  Even when systems or warnings are in place – think terror or cyber attacks – crises by their very nature take us by surprise.  

We are hardwired to extrapolate from what has been and expect more of the same.  That has to change. If you are going to scenario plan (and you should), you really have to get firmly out of the box and ‘think the unthinkable’, because that is just where real danger lies. 

Secondly, with today’s media and technology networks enabling instant communication - what is a troublesome wave one minute is a tsunami the next…..
 
So in a world where expecting the unexpected is the norm and technology has enabled real time reportage, what to do when that crisis envelopes you?  

Stage 1 – Understand the Challenge

The first thing is you can’t manage what you can’t understand. You need to do some fast situational analysis, gather intelligence and feedback from the coal face and decide as quickly as possible what has happened and what needs to happen. You need to frame the issue in a way you can address.   

While all of this effort is going on you need to show empathy, engagement and reassurance. Many a crisis has been made infinitely worse by spokespeople not showing emotion or empathy. 

This is job one and needs to be communicated upfront together with a commitment to resolve the crisis and the reassurance that this will happen swiftly and professionally. It’s about leadership not liability.   

Key actions: Invoke business continuity planning or crisis contingency within the company (particularly focusing on the incident site, customers and staff); establish executive command control centre (involve senior communications, HR and legal advisors from the start); decide key initial statements, messaging and key spokesperson(s) and publicise with relevant media; put emergency channels of communications into effect.

What’s new today: Social media. You need a strategy for monitoring and mobilising reaction amongst social media and be prepared to use Facebook, Twitter and respond to blogs/tweets.   

What doesn’t work: Stonewalling. Whatever it is, the truth will out. The cover-up is always worse.

What normally goes wrong – Too slow to react; too fearful of admitting liability so no empathy is shown; no coherent communications plan and too many spokespeople; too quick to move to stage 2 before fully understanding the problem or speculating on what may have gone wrong and having to change your position later; trying too hard control social media or not engaging at all.     

Key communications deliverables: Empathy, engagement and reassurance – we get it! And we are moving fast to fix it.  

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