By Fred Chesher, Director
True? Also yes.
A legitimate response when a client rings you in a panic because the Daily Mail has called?
No, unfortunately not. If only crisis communications were that simple, we’d probably all be out of work.
I am a firm believer that when a brand gets to a certain scale crises become inevitable. As the company grows, revenue and popularity increase, and the media glare and customer expectations increase in parallel. There comes a point when there are simply too many moving parts within a company to keep in check 100% of the time. Too many factors outside of control can lead to issues that will more than likely hit the press or social media.
Hopefully issues don’t start to happen all the time, but bad, annoying, unforeseen, and occasionally terrible things will happen. Often, it’s not what happens but how you deal with it that matters. Especially when you don’t have a decent crisis communications team by your side.
While we could spend hours and thousands of words discussing the intricacies of crisis communication strategy, I believe there are a couple of key things to bear in mind while dealing with an issue. Call them tips, mantras, a guide, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is doing the work, staying vigilant and not panicking!
1) Know the difference between Crisis Management and Crisis Communications and your role within both.
While this might feel like an obvious one, crisis management and crisis communications are often conflated but are two separate things. While crisis management is the management of a crisis (fixing the problem at the source), crisis communication should focus (funnily enough) on communication.
The key messaging and information that needs to be delivered internally and externally to employees, suppliers, customers and media during and after the crisis.
While the two roles are inextricably linked and successful outcomes rarely come about without the two teams working closely together there needs to be a clear line of difference between the two.
2) Know when you are in a real crisis and when it’s just a minor fuck up.
Alistair Campbell knows a thing or two about crisis communications and he has a clear definition of what constitutes a real crisis - “I have always defined a crisis in this way: ’An event or situation that threatens to overwhelm and even destroy you or your organisation unless the right decisions are taken”.
While that sounds very scary, being clear about the severity of the problem is necessary to inform your processes, reporting and response. From personal experience dealing with a cheeky frog who decides to chill in one of your salads is very different to a companywide COVID response.
Hopefully you never have to deal with a real crisis (as defined above) but crisis communications teams need to prepare for every eventuality and have clear processes in place should the worst occur.
The same works the other way too, while smaller issues like rogue amphibians should always be treated seriously, the CEO probably doesn’t need to be cc’d into the frog emails unless you have a start to have a real crisis on your hands.
3) Don’t panic, take a breath, act quickly but don’t rush anything.
I often use the analogy of Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction when it comes to how to act when presented with an issue or crisis, while it might be a bit of a dated reference the 90s are in vogue so even the youngest members of your team should see what I am getting at.
In the legendary scene, Harvey Keitel’s character is the personification of cool, calm and collected even when faced with the daunting task of cleaning up a headless corpse in the back of a car. Winston Wolf has read the brief before arriving, he assesses the situation and gets the facts before dishing out any advice and when he does divulge the strategy he is clear, concise and to the point.
Although time is of the essence, Mr Wolf pauses to have a coffee and think through the right course of action. While I wouldn’t recommend using the fruity Tarantino language with your clients and I would definitely say please, Winson Wolf takes control of the situation.
While others around him are literally losing their heads, Mr Wolf knows exactly what to do. Be like Winston, don’t panic, don’t let others panic and don’t rush your decisions.
4) Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance
The old military saying might be a bit of a tongue twister but having proper processes and planning in place, even if it is just Q+As and media statements prepared ahead of time, really can make a difference when a Daily Mail journalist has given you a tight deadline on a Friday afternoon.
While you can’t prepare for every issue that might come up, there will be key themes that arise within every business that can be workshopped and planned for. Some are sector specific, and some are universal like cyber security, sustainability or HR.
Any kind of crisis prep with your internal or client team ahead of time is time well spent. A frog in a salad while a surprise to me initially wasn’t surprising moving forward, we planned for foreign objects, created processes, statements and Q+As for every bug, frog and the like moving forward.
5) Sorry seems to be the hardest word. It shouldn’t be.
When and how to say sorry is a universal pain point for every brand, say it too often and your legal bills could go through the roof, don’t say it at all and you look cold and uncaring. Say it in the wrong way and you look corporate and robotic. Sounds like a minefield!
Another important distinction to bear in mind while planning your crisis communications response is the root cause of the issue. It can have a bearing on if/ when to apologise and how that will affect the media and consumer reaction to your apology.
Let’s be honest, sometimes an issue is a brand’s fault, they mucked up. Often this is the most important time act swiftly, own up and say sorry. Consumers will likely be upset and let down; and the media will want to know what you are going to do to make it up to them. Transparency and honesty are the key in this situation, put yourself in the shoes of the customer and act how you would want to be treated if this had happened to you.
Sometimes though, something outside of the brand’s control will happen, and annoyingly you could still be held responsible and dragged into an issue. Maybe a supplier has let them down, or a widespread issue has arisen, like COVID, supply chain issues or the cost-of-living crisis.
In this instance it might feel wrong apologizing when you have done nothing wrong, but in a world where consumers are expecting more from brands than ever and rush to social media to tell you, a simple sorry can go a long way.
Showing empathy and a desire to make things right will stick with the consumers and media long after the specifics of the issue have been forgotten.