No business can afford to treat a crisis communications plan as an afterthought
It is prudent to have plans in place for regular business disruptions, such as mitigating the impact of losing crucial staff to illness, or putting aside some money each month to carry us through the lean times. However, not all things can be planned for to the finest detail.
How many businesses had pre-existing plans in place to operate fully remotely because of a global pandemic? However, it’s not just once-in-a-generation events that can take businesses by surprise. We have all seen how ill-considered marketing decisions can turn brands on their heads, or how photos of a soiled product can go viral and damage a brand’s reputation.
If a business waits until a crisis happens to put together a plan, it is already too late. All companies should have a crisis framework in place. The days of burying heads in the sand are well and truly gone, as the instant and viral nature of social media means everything is everyone’s business. In South Africa, we have witnessed the disruption of mass mobilisation around crises.
A crisis communications framework will include a risk analysis and a host of actions including channels of communication, approvals process, spokespeople and strategies around reactive statements and more.
Crisis communications is a skill, and if handled recklessly can backfire and fuel a crisis instead of managing it.
Why is a comprehensive plan vital? In the absence of such a plan, in the heat of a crisis, there is every possibility that operational response will be incoherent or even nonexistent. The implications of this are that the organisation will be perceived as aloof, incompetent or even guilty. When people do not know what is happening, or are unable to get the information they require, it fuels speculation and anger.
Once this spiral starts it becomes like a snowball - the longer it runs the bigger it becomes and the more difficult it becomes to stop. The reputational and financial damage grows with each hour.
So what can businesses do? Anticipate potential crises by analysing every aspect of the business and considering where things could go wrong. If systems or processes can be changed to mitigate this possibility, then they should be fixed. At this point, scenario planning becomes vital, as does your organisational response plan.
Working with your PR agency, identify and train your key crisis communications team, including senior executives and legal counsel, and delegate spokespeople who will need to be media trained.
Identify who the key stakeholders are, and develop a plan for how they will be communicated with. Work closely with your specialised PR crisis communications team to define social media processes, develop holding statements and FAQs. Often this will require focus groups or market research.
Of course, some crises cannot be predicted, but the response plan gives some structure for the business so that in the heat of panic, everyone has a blueprint to follow and the lines of communication are clear. The best way to be prepared for crises you had not anticipated is to monitor all aspects of the business, media and social media. This is where PR agencies become invaluable, with teams on the pulse of conversations around your brand.
Remaining relevant and agile is important - it is not good enough to go through all these steps and then file them. Each crisis, whether large or small, should be analysed and the key messages and processes should be continually adapted. A reputable agency that does this work with other clients will be able to bring experience from similar or different industries that could greatly benefit your organisation.
Reputation management depends on a few pillars, including responsiveness, empathy, authenticity, a keen appreciation of context and tone. Ultimately, your PR agency will work with you to be able to take ownership of the narrative as far as possible, without being condescending or taking anything for granted.
Take advice, listen to the specialists, and invest in a comprehensive crisis communications framework. It’s far easier to recover from a financial knock than it is to rebuild a broken reputation.