Communicating in a Crisis

In the latest issue of leading maritime industry publication Fairplay, BLUE’s Executive Director Nick Blythe advises on how to manage communications in a crisis.  Expanding on his comments,…

In the latest issue of leading maritime industry publication Fairplay, BLUE’s Executive Director Nick Blythe advises on how to manage communications in a crisis.  Expanding on his comments, Nick discusses here the importance of an effective crisis management strategy and some of the key steps to take in order to successfully manage a crisis and protect the reputation of your organisation.

The key to successfully handling any crisis is to be prepared. Although every crisis is different, every company should have a plan that identifies the potential crises that might occur and the processes and protocols that should be adopted in handling them. This means having a crisis team that is responsible for assessing the situation, gathering information, developing the response and taking responsibility for internal and external communications.

When a crisis occurs, the basic steps are the same that you would take in developing any communications strategy, albeit under far more challenging circumstances. You have to understand the issue, identify whom you need to communicate with, what needs to be said to them and what communication channels should be used.

In most cases, there are some standard items of communications material that will be required. When a crisis breaks, it may be necessary to issue a holding statement that acknowledges the situation and buys time to develop a robust communications plan, tailored to that situation.

When dealing with the media, it is also vital that the right facts are delivered. This helps to prevent speculation, which is a given if they don’t have access to information. This is particularly important given the proliferation of the media and the internet in providing global immediacy to a crisis. The spokesperson must be well briefed and kept abreast of developments, so that messages can be adapted and developed accordingly. They must be armed with a robust Question and Answer document that ensures consistency; having multiple spokespeople delivering conflicting messages is tantamount to disaster. It also helps to have endorsement from other organisations that show support in a crisis.

BLUE has dealt with a crisis that involved the death of the CEO of a global, listed organisation. The worst thing that you can do in these situations is ‘go dark’ and not talk to anybody. You have to control the information flow, appear transparent, deliver messages that are empathetic, but assert confidence that – in this situation – assures the market that a continuity plan is in place, that a capable leadership team is in place and that it’s ‘business as usual’ for customers.

Internally, you have to deliver similar but differently toned messages that are focused on continuity, maintaining standards and providing customers with an exceptional service, as well as providing reassurance that the business is in safe hands. In doing this, while the situation was tragic, important aspects such as maintaining share price, consolidating the customer base and rallying employees was assured.

Of course, there are situations that aren’t as dramatic but can still impact reputation and enterprise value, such as losing a major customer, making significant redundancies, profit warnings and so forth. While certain legalities dictate the nature of some such communications, such as issuing a profit warning, there is still a significant job to do in maintaining reputation. Again, it is about being on the front foot, controlling the communication flow and understanding what needs to be said to internal and external stakeholders.

Finally, dealing with a crisis should not be the first point of communication with stakeholders. It helps if a company has an existing communications strategy that is focused on proactively building a positive reputation. When a crisis occurs it is far easier to deal with an audience, particularly the media, when they already know you, like you and are inclined to be far more sympathetic to the situation. If they’ve never heard of you, they are more likely to focus on the gory details and feast on the carcass of your brand and reputation.