Have you ever had that moment when your mobile rings mid-afternoon on a Sunday and you look down to see it's a client number?
For me this can usually mean one of two things - they're accidently ringing Aberfield instead of Aunty Jan or, more likely, they really do need to speak to you on a Sunday afternoon. If it's the latter then it can only be for one reason - and it's not normally a good one.
Cue crisis comms.
Back in the day, before 24-hour news, citizen journalists, bloggers and social networks, a crisis could rumble away for days before turning into a full media storm. If, in fact, it ever did. If you were quick and clever, you could have nipped it in the bud almost before anyone noticed. Certainly before the company's reputation was damaged.
But with videophones, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest, the gap between spark and melt-down has narrowed to just a few minutes.
The thirst for knowledge is relentless when news is breaking, with information becoming a valuable currency and, in the absence of facts, hearsay and speculation will do.
The rumour mill can go into overdrive quicker than you can log-on and a crisis can hit before you've time to even type a tweet.
We've been helping a couple of client with crises recently and thought it might be an opportunity to share some of the advice that we have been dispensing.
1. A crisis is like a fire - starve it of oxygen
So to put out the crisis fires, you need to shut off the air supply as quickly as you can. And how do you do that? Well, read on to find out!
2. Be prepared
Carefully consider all the possible crisis scenarios you could imagine hitting your organisation. You won't think of all of them but it's still a useful exercise. Then think about how you would respond to each. Start with the audiences first, and then the messages and the delivery mechanisms - never the other way round.
3. Have the right team in place
As part of your preparation, make sure you have an experienced crisis management team in place, with clear roles and responsibilities. Always separate the operations side of the crisis from the communications. And don't automatically make the CEO the team head. He or she may have other priorities, or may simply not have the right skills to lead it.
4. Be visible
Don't hide behind media statements. Be prepared to engage with your audiences. If that means going on TV or the radio to explain what's happened and what you're doing about it, then do it. If it means holding 'town hall meetings' with staff, customers or shareholders, then organise them. Be available. Be out there. Don't hide and hope it goes away on its own. It won't.
5. Know when to keep out of the limelight
OK, now ignore what we just said, because sometimes you may need to keep your head below the parapet.
If it's an industry-wide issue then don't make it your crisis. Let professional bodies represent "you"?, or independent "experts"? explain what's happened on your behalf. If you're not responsible, don't take all the flak. But once your organisation has been named and the spotlight's on you, revert to rule 4.
6. Use social media, don't fear it
Social networks are a great way to get out information quickly and accurately (assuming you can make do with 140 characters) and to engage with audiences online. You can post (and/or link to) videos, images, press releases, statements, customer notices and the like.
Use social media to update your customers - stick it on Twitter or Facebook, or upload a video to YouTube. Even better, do all three! And then you can always direct them to your website to find out more.
Most importantly, go to where your audiences are - don't expect them to come to you
7. Remember the 'What', 'How' and 'Who'
A crisis typically has three phases: what happened, how it happened, and who (or what) was responsible. Our brains compute information in stages, so once we've established the bare facts of what happened, we want to know what, or who, caused it, and how we prevent it happening again.
The problem is, in our connected world of instant information, the phases will often overlap. So don't just think about your current 'phase'. Think about the next one, and the one after that. How might they play out? How will you deal with them?
8. Be open and honest
OK, you've got a crisis on your hands. You've done all the preparation and you have all the plans in place. But what do you actually say?
Clearly, your messages will depend on the nature of the crisis, so we can't advise you here on messaging but the rule of thumb in crisis communications is: be open and honest.
Don't try to 'spin' the story, or hide the facts. A crisis is no time to be losing the trust of your key stakeholders, whether they are customers, employees or shareholders. And nothing erodes trust like being caught in a lie.
9. Keep calm
The importance of remaining calm in a crisis cannot be underestimated.
If you panic, not only will that make those around you more prone to panic, but it's more than likely you will make the wrong decisions as a result. If you have the right crisis management team in place, with roles correctly assigned and responsibilities clear, then - at least above the waterline - all should appear calm. Feel free to paddle away under the water as fast as you can!
10. Don't forget the post-crisis phase
Even if you have substantial reservoirs of goodwill to draw from, it's quite possible that a crisis will damage your business or your brand. Hopefully (if you've followed these tips and you've employed the services of an experienced crisis communications team like Aberfield!) that won't happen, but let's just assume the worst.
The post-crisis phase needs to be planned just as carefully as the crisis phase itself. Consider how you will rebuild your reputation or your sales. Do you need to organise a stakeholder roadshow? What about an advertising campaign? Or a sales promotion for your customers? And even if your media encounters have left you battered and bruised, now's definitely not the time to be putting your PR on hold.
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