With the events of the last few months, no-one can be in any doubt that if a crisis happens it won’t be when or what is expected. The COVID-19 pandemic and all its still evolving health, societal and economic ramifications is one of the biggest challenges the modern world has ever faced, and communications have been pivotal to the effectiveness of measures adopted to tackle its impact.
How successful – or otherwise – those communications have been is open to debate and will form part of the inevitable official inquiry into how the UK handled the crisis. Messaging that was commendably clear, concise and consistent at the outset is now judged to be confused, chaotic and contradictory.
No matter the scale of a crisis, there are some fundamental rules to be followed to ensure that the associated communications are effective.
The first rule is to decide if you are, in fact, facing a crisis and not just a difficult problem. This is the simple test we apply: ‘A crisis is an unexpected event or happening that threatens the financial, operational or reputational viability of a business or organisation.’
The specifics may differ depending on the business or organisation and its sphere of operation, but the test remains the same. If there is, indeed, a crisis, dealing with it needs to follow a few simple rules:
KEEP CALM – no good decisions are ever made in a panic. If you are a business leader your team will look to you for guidance and reassurance so a boss in a flap isn’t going to inspire confidence
THINK CLEARLY – analyse the situation with your key executives, assess the worst case/best case impacts, both internally and externally, agree on a plan of action
ACT DECISIVELY – appoint a crisis management team to implement the plan, explain what has happened and the actions you are taking to remedy the situation to all relevant audiences, staff, customers, clients, partners , regulators, other stakeholders and, if appropriate, the public
In a 24/7 media landscape, a crisis will always attract legitimate journalistic attention. Dealt with effectively the media can actually help deal with the situation; mishandled it can make a bad situation worse. So here are a few ‘F’ words – not those you might imagine – to help.
1. FIRST – get on the front foot in communicating so that you are driving the conversations and not seen to be on the defensive
2. FAST – respond within the media’s deadlines, not your own. Don’t imagine that ‘No comment’ means no story. If you are slow or reluctant to speak, the media will go to someone else who may have less knowledge but is willing to talk
3. FRANK – within the bounds of legality and commercial confidentiality be open and transparent. Obfuscation can often lead to worse problems than the original event. Everyone accepts that things can go wrong so it’s how you are judged to have dealt with them that can dictate your legacy
By their very nature, each crisis is different but following these simple rules will enable you to deal with them effectively.