Over the past few months we have been talking about crisis communications with our friend, John Bailey who shared his experiences in crisis management.

After the Indian Ocean Tsunami, John was deployed to Thailand for three months. More recently he was part of the Ketchum team advising the senior management of Malaysian Airlines regarding their response to the flight MH370 disappearance, an unprecedented crisis in aviation history.

Some of the most common mistakes in crisis management include:

  • Being too slow to respond
  • Not recognising the severity of the problem
  • Failing to take responsibility or show empathy for those affected
  • Sending different messages to different people
  • Trying to blame others
  • Keeping employees in the dark
  • Stonewalling the press or doing nothing and hoping it will go away

The key points in crisis management are:

Preempt Crisis – By Listening for Early Warning Signs

Media intelligence and monitoring tools available today allow us to trace performance based on key indicators such as exposure, reach, quality of coverage, etc. These tools also help spot signs of messages that are steering in the wrong direction. The first step is to identify a possible crisis, list down keyword triggers and create searches on news and social to keep tabs on conversations about the brand.

Crises can be of two kinds – extrinsic (beyond your control) and intrinsic (perceived to be in your control/responsibility). It is easier for us to identify a potential intrinsic crisis as compared to an extrinsic crisis, where there are tens and thousands of conversations going on, making it impossible to engage with all of them. Instead, it is important to determine the tone of conversations and respond accordingly.


Have the Discussion Now – But Do Not Prepare your Crisis-specific Contingency Plans in Isolation

You should avoid having a knee-jerk reaction during a crisis. Having a crisis-specific contingency plan will ensure that your team is prepared and calm. You can start this by establishing an internal notification system. Analysing your competitors crises or pre-empting potential crises that you might face is also important. Avoid making these plans in isolation and making assumptions that relevant departments are aware of their roles and responsibilities. Instead, define a structure and pass it down from the regional to the local management team.

John gave an example of one MNC that he worked with, where he noticed that there were eight different contingency plans developed across multiple departments. They were all excellent plans but the problem was that they were written by different people at different times, using different terminology and worst of all, each of the plans made assumptions about the actions other departments would undertake during a crisis.

Be Responsible and Transparent

Monologue messaging no longer works; people prefer to be engaged in an interactive conversation, especially in today’s world where social media escalates the conversations in media and the community. It is therefore even more important to be responsible, honest and transparent, even if you may not have all the answers at the moment. You have to demonstrate that you understand the impact, and you have a plan of action in response to it. You have to match what you say and what you do. This may sound daunting but if done right, can be a chance to impress the public.

A good example is the incident of AirAsia flight QZ8501 going missing. AirAsia’s chief executive, Tony Fernandes “apologised profusely” for the accident and admitted that “the passengers were on my aircraft and I have to take responsibility for it”. He mentioned that he was focused on supporting the families. On social fronts, he also posted updates on his personal channel.

Yes, Speed is Crucial in Monitoring. Real time is now the Standard.

  • 28% of all crises spread to international media within one hour, 69% spread to an average of 11 countries within 24 hours
  • However, on average, it takes 21 hours before companies issue meaningful external communications, leaving organisations open to “trial by Twitter”

Source: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer survey of communication professionals involved in more than 2,000 reputational crises in Europe, USA and Asia, November 2013

With social media in the picture, it’s very difficult to keep things a secret now. People are going to talk and you need to know what they are talking about in real time. Organisations should be prepared with a way to monitor these conversations. You want a tool that gives you connectivity and mobility in monitoring and also the ability to  engage with these conversations. Modern media intelligence tools provide this real-time content tracking through online platforms and mobile apps.