Mortgage Solutions group editor, Victoria Hartley offers the highlights of our first Women’s Executive Finance Forum’s leadership event of the year on crisis communications.
“A really important thing to bear in mind is that actually, a lot of the time, it’s not up to you as a business to decide what is a crisis,” said Emma Dean, associate director, Hanover Communications.
When a crisis hits it pays to be flexible and approach each situation individually, added our crisis communications key note speaker.
Dean asked the audience for the names of companies which had done crisis management well in living memory.
Virgin was a name offered by a couple of people in the room for its proactivity after the East Coast mainline derailment with Richard Branson visiting the site and offering clear leadership.
Another WEFF attendee agreed saying Virgin Holidays had proactively averted her own honeymoon disaster after Hurricane Ivan caused huge damage in Grenada but the travel company stepped up with several reassuring emails and phone calls that the honeymoon would go ahead, just not to that location.
What are crisis communications?
Dean said PR escalates to crisis communications when a company has not only lost control, but it is becoming a business problem.
Every level of a company from the CEO and board, internal and external communications all the way down to the lowliest staff can potentially become involved in crisis communications.
“Why is that? Because at the end of the day, a crisis can escalate to the point where it’s no longer just a PR problem, where the PR manager is not going to be the one with their job on the line ultimately, it’s going to be the board and ultimately the reputation of everybody who works for that company,” says Dean.
“So it’s in everybody’s interest to help those teams getting it right and to be learning actually about how the business operates.”
Nominating the right spokesperson with a close enough working knowledge of an often complex topic but is also sufficiently media trained to be able to deal with questions under pressure, sometimes for sustained periods of time is not easy, she said.
Creating a plan of action
Firstly, it is identifying where a crisis could come from and doing that places you on the front foot. Dean said identifying potential risks, then putting tool kits in place, training and messaging is critical so leaders are ready in the event of a call at 8pm on a Friday night.
Start with the business risk register to identify the issues and activities resource should be targeted at. Share it around the business and brainstorm the additional risks departments feel they could face, from a product perspective, or a customer one, for example.
“It can get your brain and your team’s brains working the right way should a situation occur,” she adds.
Don’t just focus on external risks, look at internal potential issues too. Dean said from a cyber security perspective, the vast majority of data breaches occur because of human error inside a business. So communicating with people about their roles and responsibilities from that perspective is incredibly important.
With a cyber attack, for example, everyone potentially will need to be involved so internal communications becomes critical. The reputation gap, or discrepancy between what a business says, how it presents itself and what it actually believes is also at risk during a crisis.
So, put a protocol in place, which is a single document with who does what, when and how if a crisis hits, importantly with up-to-date contact details. Lay out the correct dial in details in an emergency. Decide who needs to be involved and then who the smallest number of people needed to approve a press release or line of action are, and then try to whittle that down to even fewer people.
“It’s amazing how simple, practical things can go amiss in a crisis,” said Dean.
“The worst thing that you can do, and this is the one thing I hope you will take away from today, is start from scratch in the midst of a crisis.
“Because that is not when you’re going to do your best work, it’s not when you’re going to represent yourselves and your business in the best possible way, and more often than not it’s going to lead to confused, contradictory rushed statements that aren’t particularly audience-friendly,” added Dean.
The social media angle
Avoid bad customer service on social media, says Dean, as with the right level of organisation you can set up a template for Twitter, Linkedin or other social media responses.
Don’t duplicate from press releases. Reorganise the message to make it work for the medium and the customer and don’t just tell people there’s a problem and to contact customer services. Offer a screenshot of a document with all the numbers clearly listed – don’t make consumers scroll down to find what they need from several different tweets, for example.
If your communications toolkit is already available, with templates of documents and the wording for a crisis, you can tweak wording for each situation which is faster than starting from scratch.
Practice makes perfect
For the absolute gold standard in crisis communications, do a crisis simulation suggests Dean.
“It’s about stress testing that scenario in real time, getting everybody in the room who would be there on the day. It’s quite entertaining to watch this when you’ve got the legal team giving the CEO advice and the PR team giving the CEO advice. Who are they going to listen to?”
Dean said the lawyers will always tell you to say nothing and PRs will always tell you to say something.
Stress testing allows you to fine tune your processes and decide who, in the event, should be your spokesperson and do media training ahead of a situation. Or after the storm has died down, who will be going in to give evidence to the Select Committee, because that’s a ‘whole different kettle of fish’, she added.
“I had a CEO in a select committee by himself because the other people dropped out at the last minute. He was there for two hours and he’d never done it before. He did fantastically well but how many people in your business would be able to have really intense scrutiny for two hours?” she added.
But don’t be afraid of the unexpected and don’t let it put you off making a start, said Dean
“This will only make your businesses better at dealing with a scenario, which can only mean that if a situation occurs, that your reputation will withstand it.”
She added: “With the best crisis management, you don’t know it’s happened because it’s all been done behind the scenes and it’s gone away so quickly that as a customer I haven’t noticed that it’s been an issue.”
What the WEFF attendees learnt
1. Assess where the highest risks could emerge from within your company. Put toolkits, training and messaging in place.
2. Put a protocol in place. Compile a single document with who does what, when and how if a crisis hits, importantly with up-to-date contact details.
3. If your communications toolkit is already available, with templates of documents with wording for a crisis you can tweak wording and language to tailor for a situation which saves time instead of starting from scratch.
4. Start preparing now.
5. Don’t be put off if it’s not directly your department who would lead emergency communications. Ask for examples of best practice from the companies or PR agencies that do it well.