As a communication executive for many years in large corporations, I had the benefit of analyzing what worked and what did not work in a time of crisis.
Crisis covers many angles. One could be corporate crisis when a CEO or a key employee leaves the company, dies, is kidnapped, has problems with the law. Another angle could be product crisis when a product puts lives in danger or when it fails to deliver. Also, geographic issues such as earth quakes, tornadoes could be the issue. Finally, the HR angle when an employee die on the job, are on strike or leak some very confidential information. In general crisis communication touches, anything that could harm a brand, its investors, its executives or its products.
I have had to manage a lot of angles as director of corporate communications of a large group. Every time it happened, I noticed that the approach was the same for all reasons. I have listed them below and have tried to explain how to manage efficiently a crisis without damaging any further the company we represent and while ensuring the consumer is well informed.
The elements for good crisis communication are:
1. To be prepared – who do you need to contact when you find out (have a list of all key execs with their numbers and emails), what do you need to put in place to answer correctly journalists, investors, executives, consumers… which channel will you use to communicate efficiently…. Know your subject and do not get surprised.
2. Draw up an open plan – with your team, prepare a roadmap that you will all follow and agree to. Understand when you will be able to announce what and when you can say what measures the company will take.
3. Be over present – make sure all information channels are covered.
4. Be available at all times – no matter what time of the day and/or night, always be available for questions.
5. Be fast – preempt questions, announce before the press does.
6. Be transparent – make everyone understands that you have nothing to hide. The truth will always come out, do not lie.
7. Announce at once. Take the hit first and then reconquer your audience – do not announce bad news one at a time.
8. Be humble – shit happens, you are very sorry to announce the news.
9. Be consistent – make sure that your messages are all the same throughout regions and the world as well as throughout the company.
10. Work hard – ensure the press, investors, employees have information available at all time.
Now that we know which area we need to focus on and how we should behave I thought I would cover each point one by one and give you some concrete examples of past experiences. Things that I found work great and things that I found did not and could have been improved.
The main issue you are faced with today is the fact that communication is everywhere, all the time and will go through every single channel that exists.
Be prepared is the first point. As you have time (outside of a crisis), prepare yourself for the worse and prepare processes and documents so that when/if you are in a crisis you can focus on what is important. In general, when the crisis comes, you realize that you do not have the CEO’s phone number, the lawyer’s phone number or each head of countries’ details. Prepare for it and have some booklets of key people ready and a list of all potential issues with an orgchart of who to contact for what problem. In one of my companies I had over 2000 products. I could not know them all, so what I did was to create clusters of people with different specialties. Therefore, if one product was faulty or one area of expertise was needed, I knew who to contact very easily. I also ensured that they were all trained to speak to the press.
Draw an open plan. Once the crisis is out in the open, organize a meeting with the teams that need to be involved (one of the clusters) and prepare a roadmap of what needs to be announced as well as a schedule of press conferences you want to organize to regain the upper hand. See where in the world the issue is more sensitive and ensure you are totally dedicated to that region.
Be over present. Yes, journalists need to be fed with information and they are a very important element of how to answer a crisis. But, today many other channels exist. You cannot avoid the news channels on the internet or the social networks. Sometimes you lose the battle against public opinion because you have forgotten to answer a Tweet for example. In one of my companies, we were not allowed to answer for the company on social networks. It was so painful to see the press being positive about our brand and to be killed on the internet when we could not do anything. As we will see later on, you have nothing to hide, so be there and make sure you share your message regularly everywhere.
Be available at all times. There is nothing worse that an issue in the open with people/journalists asking questions and the company does not respond. Then the door is open for interpretation and wrong answers to theses questions. In another company I worked for, I gave my mobile (cell) number to journalists and sometimes they called at 4:00 am to validate a quote or information they had heard. It does not happen often but just the fact that they have your number will reassure them.
Be fast. One of the key elements is to ensure that you announce the issue before it gets out. Employees, investors and journalists want to know first and they do not want to be told by the press, especially if you have some close relationships with journalists. You also need to prepare a Q&A where you put yourself in the shoes of a journalist and you preempt questions they might ask and prepare answers.
Be transparent. In today’s world, the truth will always come out, one way or the other. Be transparent and honest so you will not create another issue by lying or by hiding information. The brand will always be credible and you will keep your reputation as a reliable person.
Announce at once. It is important to announce everything at once. You will always have investors telling you to minimize communication and to only announce small problems while keeping the big ones for later. This is like death by a thousand cuts. If you announce everything at once, you take the hit, depending on the seriousness of the crisis, your stock might plunge but then it is done and you can reconquer the stock market, journalists and employees.
Be humble. Your company has made a mistake (most of the time not intentionally), this is not your fault as head of communication. Things happen, your role is to now fix it. The humbler you are, the better it will be for your relationship with journalists later. Use the word sorry and show you really mean it.
Be consistent. This is probably the most important point. It is essential that messages across the world are the same. In one of my companies during a global crisis we used to have meetings at 2:00 am in Europe, 5:00 pm in California, 8:00 pm in New York and 10:00 am in Asia. You also want to ensure that employees have the same message so that if journalists wait for them in the bathroom (it happened) they know how to answer them. If one of your messages varies, the feeling will be that you are not transparent and that you lie so they will try to get more information and the issue risks to be bigger.
Work hard. Crisis communication is hard because it is time consuming. However, if you are prepared, you have a good team with you and you are dedicated to fight for your brand, you will succeed and the reward will be great. You can turn around over time a bad situation into a great one because the trust in your company will be stronger once the issue is over.
As always, I am available to discuss this and work with you on how we could prepare, manage and succeed in crisis communication.