Other than death and taxes there are no certainties in life and I cannot say whether you and your organisation will ever have to face a crisis. I hope you will never have to, but if you do it will be highly challenging and you will need to respond positively to come out the other side with your personal and organisational reputation intact. That message about being positive even under challenging circumstances is central to reputation management.
With nearly a quarter of a century of working alongside organisations helping them to prepare for crisis, experience says that those who plan and prepare and train and then plan, prepare and train again, give themselves a fighting chance of coming out the other side relatively unscathed. A positive approach is central to that.
There is little logic about crises. Just because you have never had a crisis is certainly not a guarantee that you will never have one, nor is it evidence that your plans are effective, nor that you are a well-run and safety conscious organisation. Clearly having a focus on business continuity and a culture built around safety is going to reduce the chances of disaster striking but no organisation is completely bomb proof. Even in this day and age there are too many organisations who are guilty of thinking, “it can’t happen here.” Arrogance and complacency are the friends of crisis.
Like buses, you can wait for a long time for a crisis and then three come along at once. Whilst every crisis is different in some way, there are common themes. People will be affected and the more people and the more adversely affected they are then the bigger the crisis will be. If news is something that hits you in the head, the heart or the pocket then a crisis gets you with all of these, and not in a good way!
Just as there are common themes within crises so there are guiding principles that, if followed, will help you deal with disaster.
- Leadership At the time of a crisis people need leaders. People need to know someone has taken charge, that someone has a plan and is organising a response. They need to know that someone is telling them what to do and directing their and others efforts. Leaders can offer direction and reassurance and people who feel vulnerable, confused or threatened because of a crisis need that. During a crisis leaders earn their corn.
- A workable plan in place Every organisation, whatever size, whatever sector should have a business continuity plan. Many don’t. The good news is that the plan doesn’t have to be massively complex. It needs identify the primary threats or risks an organisation faces, not all of them, say around half a dozen of the more likely threats. Then for each of those scenarios work up a response plan; what actions do we carry out, what resources do we need (people and kit) and where do we go? Operational actions and communications are integral to each other so alongside each scenario create a series of template communications for internal and external audiences and get them signed off ready.
- Meaningful action A crisis is no time to form a steering group and a series of sub-committees, it is a time for action. You need to get on and do things. Your actions should be the ones that are going to make a meaningful difference and sort out the situation. Those actions also need to be visible so that people can see the evidence of action with their own eyes. This is no time for shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic!
- Communicate early & keep communicating With all that might be happening during your crisis it would be easy to forget to share what is happening with others. Don’t forget – you must communicate. The earlier you start to communicate the better and once started don’t stop. The speed of your communication is key to driving the news agenda rather than reacting to it. Who are your stakeholders and what do they need to know from you? Communication is not a one off. Communicate early and keep communicating!
- Put people first! Leaving arguably the most important until last, crises are about people. So whatever your response you must very clearly address the needs of those most directly affected and you must make sure people know you care. People as your priority should be clear both within your operational response and within your communications. If you don’t care about people then do not pass go, do not collect £200.
I sincerely hope you never have to experience a crisis, however should the worst happen by following these principles at every level you have a good chance of coming through.
Jonathan is our crisis guru, a veteran who in the past 20 years has managed every scenario you could possibly imagine. As a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), Jonathan is reassuringly calm is a crisis but does a great job emulating Jeremy Paxman during media training sessions.