Communication isn’t just for when things are going well. It’s when things go badly that most businesses find the spotlight most intense, and are under the most scrutiny. You’re remembered far more for how you react to a crisis than when you’re at your best. Crises show more than ever the value of communication and reputation – just look at the $35bn wiped from Facebook’s share price by the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. Crisis communications shows that a healthy reputation and brand is not just a nice thing to have – it’s a vital line of defence for your business as a whole.
So, when the going gets tough – how should businesses respond?
Of course, there’s no right answer, but good examples of crisis communications can be found in two recent events that, at face value, couldn’t have been more different. On the one hand, the shipping giant Maersk was hit by one of the worst cyber attacks in shipping history last summer. Targeted by the Notpetya attack, 76 of the shipping company’s ports in key locations such as Spain, Los Angeles and the Netherlands were affected, and as a result, employees were forced to perform manual methods of operation, slowing down all processes.
Two weeks after the attack, the company was unable to follow service contract rules, which negatively impacted relationships with investors and shippers. The attack occurred in late June and stalled various international operations for Maersk through mid-August.
On the other hand, chicken deliveries were delayed to KFC in the UK, resulting in the bizarre spectacle of a chicken restaurant with no chicken, and millions of hungry, disgruntled Brits. Supply and demand kicked in, and the price of a family bucket went through the roof.
Both, however, are the stories of crises in logistics. And in both instances, a considered approach to crisis communications was adopted that, arguably, saved reputations from the brunt of the impact.
React quickly and keep people informed
Within minutes of the attack, Maersk began posting updates acknowledging the issue and making sure that their twitter page was an effective first point of call for all information relating to the attack. Minute by minute updates were available and gave a clear picture of the effort that was going on at Maersk to restore normalcy.
We confirm some Maersk IT systems are down. The safety of our customers’ business and our people is our top priority. Updates to follow.
— Maersk Line (@MaerskLine) June 27, 2017
Similarly, KFC acknowledged the issue quickly, and set up a website crossedtheroad.com to keep customers informed of exactly when and where chicken would be available.
Communicate by whatever means necessary – and improvise
Maersk knew that internally, communications was vital – and hence, adopted WhatsApp as a communication tool in the absence of Email. Even Google Earth was pulled in as a means of vessel tracking.
In challenging moments the creativity and greatness of our people come out: https://t.co/mAqSJL5tIt
— Maersk Line (@MaerskLine) June 29, 2017
Similarly, crosstheroad.com required quick, decisive action to use an unconventional means of communication. There would simply be no way for customers to use Twitter to find out about their nearest open store – so something new had to be built.
In a crisis, businesses should take stock of all means of communication open to them, and be prepared to adopt unconventional methods of getting the right message out there.
Maersk made sure that they highlighted the people working to bring the company back online.
— davinarapaport (@davinarapaport) July 1, 2017
Similarly, KFC showed immense gratitude to their staff who had been affected by the chicken shortage. Empathy needs to be at the forefront of any kind of crisis response. Too often, a ‘just the facts’ mentality can erase the narrative of dedicated people trying to fix things. It’s important to remember that internal stakeholders are some of your most important ambassadors – so recognising their contribution during a crisis is essential.
Gather the facts
If you want people to trust you in a crisis, you’ve got to be honest. KFC was honest about the reasons behind the shortage as well in their explanation of the event. However, rather than heaping blame on DHL, they put the issue into perspective, and demonstrated empathy with the new logistics partner (who’s since been given the boot, however).
After the event, Maersk has been open about the fact that the cyber attack cost them $300m, and hasn’t shied away from this fact. Sharing the facts – negative as well as positive – means that people are more likely to believe you when you tell them how you’re going to fix something.
Once the dust has settled, it might be tempting to move on as quickly as possible and never mention the issue again. However, this would be disingenuous to the customers and stakeholders who’ve experienced the disruption of the crisis. However, if it’s grounded in honesty and empathy, and your brand’s values, nothing is stopping you from doing what many of us do naturally after a difficult time – see the funny side.
Søren Skou dropped a reference to the singer, Kelly Clarkson, which is not exactly a regular occurrence in maritime media – that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” KFC took a big risk by printing an apology that mostly consisted of the letters “FCK” in major UK newspapers. However, because audiences had been supplied with plenty of timely information, delivered with empathy and honesty, these rang true.
Intuition is important here, however. No-one can tell you for certain when the coast is clear and you’re ready to laugh about something. If you think it’s too soon, it probably is – and some issues, of course, will never be a laughing matter. At the wrong moment, any of these can seem crass. Honesty is essential here. If you’re not on the way to fixing the problem, you shouldn’t be sharing pictures of the cool hacks and workarounds you’re developing.
The rewards for handling a crisis well are huge. The response to the cyber-attack is now seen as a masterclass in resilience and quick thinking. The engineers at Maersk who rebuilt their IT system in days are rightly recognised as the heroes of the hour. And KFC’s response has been welcomed as a rare example of a brand getting an apology ‘right’.
Compare this to two other approaches. While it might seem simple, it’s clearly very easy to get wrong. Facebook initially responded with a lack of empathy that has cost them dearly – with Zuckerberg being seen as arrogant for ‘hiding’ in the first few days of the scandal, and the company criticised for refusing to acknowledge a problem. Closer to home, Precious Shipping demonstrated the damage that not communicating enough can do – radio silence in the face of challenges around ship recycling saw investors pulling their funding from the company.
It’s easier to stay quiet or go on the defensive in a crisis. Handling it with honesty and empathy takes courage, and involves calculated risk. However, if a business is built on strong values, acts accordingly, and communication is handled with insight and intuition, a crisis need not turn into permanent reputational damage.
By Peter Jackson, Senior Account Manager