Nov 5th 2014

Crisis communications – what to do when things go wrong

Babel PR is often called upon to advise a range of companies that are experiencing a crisis of some sort. Over the years we’ve dealt with many – from errant CEOs saying or doing something they really shouldn’t have, to problems with a key product / solution, or an attack from a competitor / disgruntled customer. It really doesn’t matter what the crisis is, there are certain steps that should always be taken.

  1. Don’t panic!
    Of all the possible reactions to crisis situations, panic is the worst. It leads to knee jerk reactions that you may live to regret. Take a breath and start thinking logically to assess both the short and long term implications. You may actually find that what you thought was a crisis was just a storm in a teacup, something that can be quickly and easily resolved. So, don’t fan the flames unnecessarily, but if you do need to act do it calmly. What you should do is to quickly acknowledge the issue, isolate it as far as possible from your normal operations and take action to redress if required.
  2. Crisis control room
    This is not a time to engage with inexperience. You need to get your top management, your subject matter experts and your external advisers together immediately, preferably in one place so there are no barriers to communication. You will also need to appoint spokespeople and make sure they are properly trained and equipped. How those people respond and how they are perceived can make or break the situation so choose with care and invest the resources to equip them properly. When interviewed in the midst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis, BP CEO Tony Haywood said, “I’d like my life back”. Not the most sympathetic or appropriate response and it provoked a huge backlash.
  3. Get the facts straight
    Although it’s important to respond to a crisis as quickly as possible, responding inappropriately, without all the facts to hand, more often than not leads to a deepening of the crisis. It’s tempting to react immediately but what you should really do is to gather together ‘chapter and verse’ concerning what went wrong, when, why, who and what was involved etc. Your aim ought to be to bring together as much intelligence as you can so you can make an informed decision, on how you respond and how you answer follow up questions. Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian Government seem to have completely ignored this step when addressing the press, public and foreign governments following the MH370 disaster. They were widely criticised for providing inaccurate and contradictory information.
  4. Put the monitoring systems in place
    Knowledge is power in any crisis management situation. Make sure you can track how the crisis is developing, in real time if possible and always consider the full range of communications channels – traditional and online media, social channels, individual web sites, employee forums etc. Knowing what is being said and where will help you put out small fires that can turn into major blazes if left unchecked.
  5. Take legal advice if appropriate
    At times the crisis will be of the sort that requires expert legal advice. If so, make sure you get it. I’ve seen numerous instances of companies getting involved in a legal minefield because the management team didn’t understand the implications of what they were saying or doing in a crisis communications scenario. Having said that, there are times when, having taken all the factors into consideration, you may choose to ignore prudent legal advice. Tread carefully and assess the risk / reward of doing so.
  6. Issue a holding statement if necessary
    “No comment” is not an option but some crisis issues are complex and it can take time to gather the information you need for a considered response. Despite that, you can’t afford to stay silent for long. The vacuum of comment will be filled by your competitors and critics and the situation may worsen quickly. In those circumstances it’s reasonable to issue a holding statement explaining that you are aware of the issue and that you are taking appropriate action – remember that as well as actually doing something about the issue, you need to be seen to be doing something.
  7. Consider interim measures
    Are there things that you can do, that don’t require a major investment in time or money, which would go some way to alleviating the crisis and positioning your company in a positive light? Once again, being seen to be addressing the issue is half the battle. Typically those interim measures may be positioned as a goodwill gesture (i.e. not an admission of responsibility) while you prepare the longer term resolution.
  8. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
    This point covers a whole range of sins. It’s very easy to make ridiculous promises on your own behalf, or those close to you. I cringed when Richard Branson, in the aftermath of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash, said that he wouldn’t be taking on passengers until he and his family had flown. Fair enough to volunteer yourself but not your family. It reminded me of a major communications blunder in the 1990s during the BSE crisis. Seeking to reassure the public that beef was safe, the then Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, invited newspapers and camera crews to photograph him trying to feed a beef burger to his four-year-old daughter. She refused!
  9. Communicate in the right channels
    You’ve already set up the monitoring systems so you know where the issue is being discussed. That’s where you generally need to target your responses – there’s no point simply posting a statement on your web site for instance, if the conversation is taking place on Twitter. Also consider what else you are communicating as a normal part of your business – it might not be the right time to be promoting a special offer to new customers if you’ve just managed to annoy the existing customer base.
  10. Analyse and learn
    Hopefully you’ve brought the situation under control and unlike Gerald (my products are crap) Ratner, who cratered his entire operation with one flippant comment at what he thought was a private event, you have a business to get back to. At this point you should be analysing in detail what led to the crisis in the first place, how it could have been prevented and then taking appropriate action. You should also examine your response to the crisis – what did you do well and what could have been better – it could happen again.

I’ve provided a number of examples in this text of poor crisis communications but there are plenty of examples of companies handling the situation well. There are those that have rightly and aggressively defended their position such as Pepsi (when faced with hoaxes alleging the discovery of syringes in cans of Diet Pepsi) and numerous examples in which the company concerned has ‘held its hands up’, admitted the issue and quickly got on with sorting it out. The best examples of all are those you haven’t heard about because they have been handled extremely well.

People don’t like repeat mistakes, inaction, corporate and individual arrogance or a lack of communication but we should never forget that they are actually quite forgiving of individual mistakes and errors of judgement if they can see that something is being done to address the issue. A crisis is a crisis and should be treated as such but if you take these factors into account, and react appropriately, it doesn’t have to be a tragedy.