Crisis management: how not to end up as a cautionary tale
Type the name of almost any company or organisation into Google and include the search terms ‘crisis’, ‘failure’, ‘embarrassment’, ‘gaffe’, or your negative descriptor of choice and you are instantly transported to pages and pages of commentary about a time where they failed to meet the expectations of stakeholders.
And as we are beginning to understand in a professional capacity, unfortunately, the internet has a long memory. So how can you avoid being used as a case study in what not to do?
Have a crisis communications plan and use it
Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.
Have a crisis communications plan and use it. Test it against as many scenarios as you can think of and run semi-regular simulations. This ensures that when the time comes, not only does your crisis plan work, but your people know how it works and their role in making it work.
Accept and acknowledge
It’s time to bring out the Serenity Prayer and accept the things you cannot change.
At the first whisper of an issue, reach for your trusty crisis communications plan and put the relevant people on standby. If it comes to nothing, brilliant, but if it turns out to be something, then you’re on the front foot.
Be visible and provide regular updates
While it might feel counterproductive when you don’t have all the information at hand, being visible and showing up goes a long way. Provide updates at pre-determined intervals whether you have new information or not. The modern stakeholder values authenticity and transparency, and any delays in communication could be misconstrued as an attempt at a cover-up.
In 2014, Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes took to Twitter after one of his company’s planes disappeared, tweeting “This is my worst nightmare”. In an innovative display of crisis leadership, he continued to provide updates in the days following. While this certainly isn’t expected, his displays of transparency and empathy generated goodwill and trust.
Weather the storm
For the length of the crisis and possibly in the days and weeks following, there will be a certain element of ‘just grin and bear it’. It’s important to hunker down and do your best, especially on days when you know you’re about to cop a beating, be it from media, stakeholders or internally. In saying this, if you know the strategy and pre-agreed plans aren’t working, or the crisis has evolved beyond expectations, don’t be afraid to adjust course and find an alternate direction. A cool-headed communications professional who brings an element of common-sense to the discourse is invaluable.
Follow up and take responsibility
Throughout the crisis, if promises of ‘full investigations’ and ‘learnings’ were made, it’s time to deliver. Yes, it’s possible the results weren’t what you hoped they would be, and responsibility lies directly with the company. In this instance, it’s best to revisit the value stakeholders place on honesty and transparency. They might not like what you have to say, but they’ll like it even less if its uncovered later down the track. This also presents the company with an opportunity to outline what has been learned from the crisis and which processes or policies needs to be changed to prevent it reoccurring. While you may operate in an industry where a crisis is likely to happen again, there are always improvements that can be made across the organisation, perhaps even in the way crises are handled.
The tragic death of four people at the popular theme park on the Gold Coast, Australia, in October 2016 was further compounded by the diabolical handling of the heartbreaking incident by Dreamworld’s parent company, Ardent Leisure.
From pushing ahead with an AGM which approved a $860,000 bonus for the CEO, to reopening the park days later for a ‘memorial day’, Ardent Leisure provided a comprehensive road map of what not to do.
Household staple, Nanna’s frozen mixed berries, was the subject of a crisis in 2015, when it was linked to an outbreak of Hepatitis A.
Australian parent company, food manufacturer, Patties Foods, was delayed in getting all the information to consumers, as well as issuing a product recall, resulting in the loss of consumer confidence, leading to losses of up to $1.5 million, and the subsequent sale of its frozen berries business.
A public information vacuum when there is a health scare, is not a good move, particularly in the age of social media, which can be mobilised in times of crisis. While Patties had a ‘recalls’ crisis plan, it didn’t have a crisis management/communications plan which adequately prepared it to respond to a worst-case scenario crisis such as this.
Leader of the Pack
Quick to enact their ‘very well-established crisis management plan’, when the Samarco dam disaster hit, causing a mudslide to wipe out an entire village and killing 19 people, BHP proved the benefits of adopting an open and transparent approach. Early media appearances by CEO Andrew Mackenzie (who arrived in Brazil as a matter of urgency) as well the establishment of a communications team on the ground, signalled the importance and priority the crisis had within the company.