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Five golden rules communicating in a crisis

Some of the UK’s biggest businesses have faced crises this year. Allan Biggar shares his five golden rules on what to do when disaster strikes

As a communications specialist, I have had a career of stepping in to help clients in crisis. That experience spans a spectrum of sectors and issues and includes working with corporates which include Equitable Life, Dow, Altria and Unilever. So here are my five golden rules on how to get a grip of a crisis and how you communicate.

Acknowledge the problem and take ownership

In the first few hours after a crisis, a huge amount of misinformation can appear. A friend of mine in one of the world’s leading mining companies tells me that in the event of an incident at one of their operations, the company has a policy of issuing a statement within the first two hours. That was the view internally of how quickly news could carry – especially in high risk industries such as extractives. So the rule here is to communicate early and often. Equally, it is important that you are sure of your facts before you do begin communicating. For example, it’s better to acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts than to try and adopt a message which is unfounded.

Be sincere and demonstrate understanding

If your industry is affected by a crisis – whether or not it’s your company's fault – you need to acknowledge the impact at a human level and express empathy quickly. I have seen many big corporates resistant to communicating at an early stage of an incident or crisis in fear that it implies culpability or liability on their part. If you don't express sympathy, it opens you and your business to accusations of being uncaring or unconcerned, and silence is often read as guilt. But your first and overriding message must be to share your thoughts with those impacted by the incident (internal or external stakeholders) and you will lend every effort to the authorities in addressing the problem. If the fault clearly lies at your hands, acknowledge and accept that as soon as is possible.

Be transparent and accessible

Honesty pays, even if you don’t have all the best-in-class systems in place. Being transparent demonstrates confidence in you, your leadership team, your product and your manufacturing and distribution methods. Following a crisis, the spotlight will fall on the way you operate and it is better that your business is allowed to be scrutinised than for the media or other interest groups to tell the story for you. You can control how that probing might be conducted, but make yourself open and accessible. It is critical to the process of rebuilding your reputation.

Leadership in communications

You need to appoint someone to serve as the public face of the company in the crisis, who is equipped to deal with the challenges that might involve. If you don’t provide a public face early on, the media and other stakeholders will decide on one for you – and who may not be the best placed person to help you. Ideally the public face will either be your most senior manager or someone from the leadership team. They will need to accept the role of taking the flak and be prepared to face the ire of stakeholders – which may not be a comfortable role.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

It is no good having a public face of the company, if that individual is untrained for the role. Equally your communications team need to be prepared. If there is one thing that can be guaranteed, your business will face an issue or crisis at some point – and the only way to know how to deal with it, is to prepare and train in advance. That way, you’ll see where your team can deal with an issue, and where they can’t; where communications worked, and where it didn’t; who performed well and who didn’t (and there’ll be some people on your team who simply don’t have the strengths to deal with crisis situations). Those are all lessons you want to learn before a crisis and not during one.

For more information, videos and advice for SMEs, visit www.freshbusinessthinking.com