Seven Golden Rules of Crisis Communications

Seven Golden Rules of Crisis Communications

Angely Сullerne
30 April 2019

It is hard to think of anything that demonstrates the calibre of an organisation or an individual more starkly than how they respond to a crisis.

A crisis can hit any business in any industry sector. That business typically only has minutes to react and respond, so any organisation that is not fully prepared to deal with a crisis and effectively diffuse the situation runs the risk of jeopardising the very existence of their business.

Here are our seven golden rules for effective crisis communications that could save your organisation from potentially irrevocable damage.

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1. Be prepared

Whatever the crisis, the first time you should be dealing with it is not when the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan. Your spokespeople should already be determined prior to any incident occurring (always have more than one in case your primary spokesperson is unavailable at the time). They should know the first steps they need to take in terms of who they need to inform (both internally and externally) well in advance of an actual crisis arising. Always inform your staff before going public, so they don’t hear about the incident second-hand.

2. Practise, practise, practise!

Creating a crisis comms plan is only the first step – without putting that plan into action, it will negate its effectiveness when it’s required. Organise regular exercises, such as imagining a crisis has occurred, and use your plan to address it. This will enable you to identify and remedy shortcomings in your plan when there is nothing at stake, rather than waiting until something happens and finding out the hard way that you are not fully equipped to deal with the situation when the full gaze of the public and the media is upon you.

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3. Try to cover all possible scenarios

When formulating your crisis response plan, workshop and list all possible crisis scenarios for your business and figure out how you would deal with each situation, so that you will be prepared for almost any eventuality.

Someone who was completely unprepared (or at least seemed so judging by his actions) for the media sh#tstorm that eventually cost him his job was former Deputy PM, the beetrooter himself (thanks Lawrence Mooney!), Barnaby Joyce.

After it emerged that Joyce had not only been shacking up with his secretary, which was against parliamentary regulations, but was doing so in a house provided to him rent-free by one of his constituents, not only did he try to dig his heels in to try to cling onto his job, once he lost that battle, he decided to take $150,000 from Channel Seven to do an interview with his new partner Vikki Campion (who has since had his child), after repeatedly asking the media to leave him alone and move on from the story.

Recently, he has had the temerity to push for reinstatement as National Party leader and Deputy PM, displaying a breathtaking lack of awareness of – or lack of care about – public sentiment towards him and his actions.

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4. React swiftly

Your organisation must demonstrate assuredness and decisiveness in a crisis in order to gain public confidence. Silence implies guilt and can exacerbate an already critical situation, so while it is still vital to know all the facts before deciding upon the appropriate course of action, it is imperative that you at least inform the public that you are in the process of collating the facts and will be in a position to offer a full statement in due course.

Last year, when needles were found inside Australian strawberries during the peak season for the crop, a lack of in-store consumer information created a sense of unease amongst consumers about buying strawberries, which resulted in significant wastage, when some simple instructions to slice the fruit when preparing it for consumption would have assuaged those fears and minimised the losses suffered by the industry. Those guidelines did eventually come, but it was too late to avoid growers suffering a massive hit to their income.

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5. Closely monitor and respond to social media engagement

While any organisation should closely monitor and respond to social media at all times, this is particularly pertinent during a crisis. The social media backlash in the wake of a high profile negative incident can be swift and brutal. By not having the appropriate response in place, you are giving your detractors an open goal.

Also, bear in mind that some crises can actually start on social media, such as the incident on the United Airlines flight when a passenger was violently dragged from the plane for refusing to relinquish their seat on the flight to accommodate United crew members (who needed to be at the destination to crew another flight) after the airline overbooked the flight. Video footage of the incident was taken by multiple passengers and shared widely on social media, causing the airline’s share price to plummet and eventually resulting in the airline having to reach an undisclosed court settlement with the passenger (which was reportedly in the region of $140 million). 

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6. Own it and don’t shirk responsibility

Trying to cover up, not fully disclose, or shift the blame in a situation where you are culpable will only exacerbate the situation and worsen the problems your organisation already faces. Just ask Cricket Australia.

In the wake of the ball tampering crisis in South Africa, the then CEO, James Sutherland, initially told the assembled media that the Australian captain, Steve Smith, would continue in the role while an “integrity investigation” was conducted, despite Smith having already admitted his involvement during another press conference hours earlier. This ultimately led to multiple sackings and resignations from the CA board and coaching staff, including the departure of long-time CEO Sutherland, head coach Darren Lehmann, and playing bans for Smith, vice-captain David Warner and bowler Cameron Bancroft.

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7. Don’t make knee jerk reactions

When a situation arises that has the potential to cause a lot of damage for your business, there can be a great temptation to make decisions in the heat of the moment to try to put out the fire at the earliest opportunity. But reacting to a crisis and responding without fully considering the implications of that response can have the opposite effect of adding fuel to the fire, rather than dousing the flames.

While it is important to publicly acknowledge the issue, it is far better to take time to assess the situation and fully consider your course of action before making it public. A brief statement saying that you are investigating the matter and will be making a fuller statement in due course will give your organisation some breathing space to fully assess what has transpired and take the appropriate steps to repair the damage and claw back public approval.

Last year, Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, decided to discontinue offering single-use plastic bags to customers, instead offering reusable plastic and canvas bags instead (for a small fee). Sold as a move to protect the environment and save millions of single-use plastic bags from ending up in landfill (where they can take up to 1000 years to fully biodegrade), the fact that it was also a highly profitable course of action for the supermarkets to take certainly greased the wheels of progress.

But after receiving some customer backlash in the wake of the bag ban, Coles panicked and decided to backflip on it, re-introducing the offending single-use bags. They did eventually ban them for good a few weeks later, but the knee-jerk reaction to lift the ban based on some negative customer feedback – particularly given the fact that the overwhelming majority of shoppers favour the ban – made Coles look indecisive and possessed with a lack of courage in its own convictions.

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