More often than not, a crisis will draw media attention to your enterprise. Dramatic and tragic as circumstances may be, how you communicate as a leader may contribute to the positive reputation of your company – and vice versa, of course. The crisis communication may be a threat to the very existence of your business.
What do say when the bridge collapses?
There are recent examples of how crises strike companies and immediately weaken their reputations. You may not be prepared for every incident, but it surprising how much you can indeed prepare for. If your job is to build critical infrastructure, it doesn’t take much to foresee some incidents that may occur. It all comes down to some rather banal questions:
- What could happen if I miscalculate?
- What could happen if a contractor misinterprets my drawings?
- What could happen if the buildings materials have production errors or are of too low quality?
We may wonder, then, if senior management at VW asked the following question some years ago:
–What will be our message if someone discovers that we tampered with the emission meter?
– Keep you enemies even closer
You may look upon your communications department as something resembling your closest friend. What these people do for you in peaceful times will decide your ability to handle a crisis if it should occur. I want to write «when it occurs», since it is very likely that something unpredictable will happen at some point. It may not have grave consequences, but one thing is for certain: If you have planned for crisis communication and have been drilled by your communications department, stick to the plan! and by all means, do all the media training they offer.
Leaders have to live with risk
I know of no executives who don’t take risks. It’s part of their job description. An important part of their job is comparing apples and bananas as far as risk goes. What risks can you live with on the way to reaching your targets?
My point is that the process cannot be stopped as soon as the risks have been exposed. You must continuously prioritize activities in order to minimize them. If the executive had the same knowledge as the organization, it would be easier to create trust and handling capability during difficult situations.
With this in mind, you may ask the question: What is the worst-case scenario, and WHAT WILL WE DO IF IT OCCURS?
Let’s go back to the basic questions. You are used to asking them when assessing business risk. It is a simple task to assess a wider range of risk by asking more basic questions and being aware of what would ultimately ruin your business. It is in itself a risk-reducing activity.
Even if you do this in a thorough manner and take measures to reduce risk, there will be risk left. You should plan for the most probable scenarios that would carry the greatest consequences. If you want to be well prepared for an unwanted incident, you should meet with your communications department, sooner rather than later. You will be faced with making the following decisions:
- Who communicates what and when?
- How and where should you be communicating?
- To whom and why should you communicate exactly this message?
Controlling the journalists
Suddenly you find yourself in front of a camera on a dark evening. The camera is in your face, you can’t see the interviewer’s face - you only see the microphone.
You hear the questions. The last hours’ chaos rages through your mind. You look insecure and you are alone. The situation is unclear to you. Then you understand how the big communication firms are able to invoice you through the roof for assisting in situations like this.
The alternative to paying, is not to falter, guess, presume or to say things for which there is no support. It is possible to control the flow of information as well as the flow of revenue.
In that case, you have easily available points to make that are adequate for the situation. The communication department will have briefed you, and the crisis management staff will have given you up-to-date, verified information. You may calmly deliver the interview, communicating:
- Verified information and the next steps of the process
- What is unclear, and being worked on
- Where further information may be obtained (phone numbers, web sites etc.)
- When further information will be given (back with updated information in an hour)
By all means, show empathy from the start and if possible within 30 seconds of the interview. Remember that how you handle relatives and how you handle media is tightly interwoven.
And if you want to fail …
If you wish to, it is easy to mess things up. These four points, at least, will help you along the way to poor crisis management:
- Unclear communication, possibly from several people in the company
- Information too late. You are paralyzed by the situation and have no plan. The situation spirals out of control.
- Have a condescending attitude. On this point, your reputation may be ruined once and for all.
- Avoid disproving false rumours, speculations and untruth. If these are sufficiently nasty, and taken for «truths», you have it coming.
In other words, there are ample opportunities for those who have a fetish for misery.
How are you perceived?
How any times have you actively involved yourself in the company's advertising campaigns? Evaluating the impact of each word and trying to mould the perfect phrase: «Create» vs. «contribute to»; «innovative solutions» vs. «future-oriented technology»?
My guess is that you involve yourself in these matters because you realize that it influences the reception of the message. In other words, you care for your target audience.
Take that care with you when creating a crisis communication plan. Put at least the same amount of effort into the process. The earnings may turn out to be much greater.