How it starts
It’s 8.30am on Monday morning. You walk into the office, coffee in hand, and notice it feels slightly quiet for a Monday. You turn the news on and see reports from the police investigating an explosion at your nearest tube station during the rush hour commute. This is the world we live in…
Across the world, we have become acquainted with this scenario. Only today you feel it a bit closer to home…. It’s now 10.00am and three of your colleagues are missing. You try to contact them desperately with no luck. Rumours are starting to spread and people begin to panic. What do you do next? How do you handle this situation?
Let’s consider a different scenario. One where people are safe but your corporate reputation isn’t. Your IT systems have been hacked and customer data is missing.
Luckily, this time your business is prepared and has a crisis management plan in place. But with IT systems down, how do you access the crisis playbook? How do you gather your crisis management team? Most importantly, how do you contact affected customers?
In the meantime, customers are starting to complain on social media; they want answers and you don’t have one. The media want a statement but you can’t reach your CEO. Employees are sharing their version of events in the absence of a clear message.
From terrorist attacks to cyber security breaches, organisations today face many unknown and sometimes unsafe situations. Uncertainty is everywhere and preparedness is the new currency.
Put simply: if you don’t prepare, you will incur more damage. Advanced planning is key to survival.
Planning for a reputation crisis
But how can organisations plan for the unknown? How can they navigate issues and protect their corporate reputations? Here are 10 critical steps to crisis management every business should have in place.
1. Anticipate crises. Some crises are unavoidable, but proactive horizon scanning can help you identify potential scenarios that are likely to impact your business. Not only will this help you prepare a response but it may also highlight that some incidents could be easily avoided by modifying existing standard operating procedures.
2. Be prepared: half the job is done when you have a plan. People need to know what to do and who is in charge during a crisis so having clear steps to follow and a team in place to respond will help you protect people and shield your organisation’s reputation. All your energy should be spent dealing with the complexities of the unavoidable, not addressing what could have been planned in advanced.
3. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Understanding your organisation’s crisis response protocols is one thing, but experiencing a live scenario and simulating circumstances close to reality will help your teams appreciate the emotional pressures of a crisis. The stress caused during a crisis dramatically reduces our cognitive functioning, impairing our ability to make decisions and control our emotions.
Crisis simulations enable you to train your emotional response and develop mental resilience in a safe environment. Controlling your emotions and adopting a problem-solving attitude is just as important as knowing the plans inside out.
4. Communicate accurately and immediately. If only to acknowledge that something has happened, express concern and reassure stakeholders that you are doing everything you can to resolve it. In the eyes of the public, no comment is the same as saying, “we don’t care” or “we’re in trouble.”
Especially in the early hours of a crisis, align your communications – and actions – to human safety and people’s needs first. However, be mindful that communicating something incorrect or inappropriate can be more damaging. Accuracy is key so consider legal and ethical constraints before rushing any decisions.
5. Give the reputation crisis a human face. Identify and train your spokespeople to act as ambassadors for your business in front of the media or any other public group. Your leaders should be seen to be leading so prepare them to face difficult questions, take control of the conversation and avoid being drawn into any degree of speculation.
6. Deliver an honest, transparent and consistent message to reassure stakeholders, minimise rumours and soften potential media frenzy. Your message should be consistent across all communications channels: client communications, internal announcements, media interviews and social media.
7. Keep employees informed. Providing accurate information to employees and guiding them on how they should react to an incident will help you gain their support. Give them clear instructions of what to do and what not to do: what’s your ask of them?
8. Guard your online reputation. Social media can work against you during a reputation crisis, accelerating and intensifying rumours that could paralyse your organisation. Inaccuracies should be corrected, particularly if posted by influential sources or commentators which could have an impact on your share price and reputation. Monitor what your stakeholders are saying on social media and use it to regain control of your message.
9. De-escalation. A crisis should be closed and the crisis management team disbanded once there are no further threats on the horizon. It’s now time to think about business continuity and how to re-adapt critical functions to return to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible.
10. What have we learnt? Evaluating crisis management performance and capturing lessons learnt once the crisis has been resolved is critical to shape your future response to crises. Notably, the reputational damage caused by the crisis should be assessed and plans should be put in place to rebuild trust amongst affected stakeholders.
It’s important to remember that a crisis does not have to affect you negatively in the long-term. When handled well, a crisis can ultimately enhance your reputation and increase stakeholder loyalty.
Corporate reputation is a company’s most valuable intangible asset, and as such, it should be wisely protected.
As Warren Buffet said, ‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it’.
Claudia is part of Lansons’ team of crisis management specialists, advising organisations on effective reputation crisis preparedness and response. Lansons offers crisis management training designed to improve the individual and collective ability to deal with issues and crises. We also have a considerable track record in managing live crises across various sectors and advising organisations to take the best steps to restore their reputation longer term.
Claudia is part of Lansons’ team of reputation crisis management specialists, advising organisations on effective crisis preparedness and response. Lansons offers crisis management training designed to improve the individual and collective ability to deal with issues and crises. We also have a considerable track record in managing live crises across various sectors and advising organisations to take the best steps to restore their reputation longer term.
This article is part of our special edition Crisis and Issues Management newsletter.