September 11 2023
It’s that moment when you realize that the situation could soon spin out of control. Something has happened within the organization, and only a few select people are aware of it for now. If, or indeed when, the news gets out, the information will spread fast, and reactions will be swift.
Your customers will be unhappy, shareholders and investors will demand to know what you’re doing, business partners will feel concerned, employees will be upset, and the media will be watching and reporting every word you say and decision you make. And that will be just the start of it.
You need to act now to try and prevent this corporate crisis from becoming an even bigger reputation-damaging PR crisis. Hopefully, the organization’s crisis management plan is up to date, and will contain the following essential steps.
Gather as many details as possible about what has happened. This will help determine the possible legal ramifications, how to communicate, and guide the internal decision-making processes. It’s important that your organization is not caught off guard by other stakeholders (including the media) who may suddenly know more than you about the crisis.
Assemble your experts. The right people and functions need to be mobilized to provide guidance on what to do next, and to carry out their respective actions. In a crisis, decision-making must be streamlined and is ultimately the responsibility of the organization’s CEO.
Any new information that becomes available, social media posts or media articles, internal leaks, and stakeholder comments or opinions – all should be collected, analyzed, and integrated into your decision-making process. It will also enable you to pivot in your communications as needed.
What you say, and how you say it. The main crisis scenarios and draft holding statements would have been developed in advance and included in the crisis plan, leaving you to adjust them in view of what has actually happened. In general, the key messages demonstrate that the organization has the situation under control, is taking steps to remedy it, and is acting in good faith overall. All communications, internal and external, needs to be aligned, and all spokespeople need to know what they can or cannot say (with the help of a brief Q&A). Close coordination with legal counsel is crucial.
In the beginning, you may contend with simple statements attributed to ‘the company’. If things escalate, a senior-level spokesperson will need to convey the key messages in the appropriate tone and demonstrate that the organization is taking the situation seriously.
Not every organizational crisis starts with a ‘bang’ and international media coverage. In fact, most of the time the leadership team has days, if not weeks, to manage the issue or incident and prepare to communicate.
Communications in crisis should be strategic. Often the organization should communicate in cascade according to the priority of its stakeholders – perhaps starting with the regulator, then employees, customers, shareholders and investors, and the wider public and media last (if at all).
In some cases, you could get away with saying nothing until you remedy the problem. Aside from the inner circle of key decision-makers, it’s possible that no-one would ever find out that something had gone wrong and was fixed. This is a valid consideration, but needs to be very carefully evaluated. If this doesn’t go according to plan, the issue or incident will leak out to the public, the organization will be on the defense, and is likely to face accusations of a cover-up and dishonesty.
Most organizations will someday find themselves facing a potential, perceived, or actual crisis that threatens their reputation. There are several practical steps that should be taken, as listed above. Ultimately, it’s the organizational culture and values that will drive the crisis response and communications. And if you’re perceived to respond in a way that is sincere and honest, then you’re likely to maintain the trust of your stakeholders that has been accumulated over the years.