There’s an old joke about a motorist lost in the countryside, who sees a local by the side of the road and stops to ask for directions. “Do you know how to get to such and such a place?” enquires the driver. “Yes, but if I were you I wouldn’t start from here,” replies the local.
It’s a similar scenario when a person or organisation experiences a crisis situation without an effective plan of how to deal with it. It will go from bad to worse. By the time they realise they need help, the question could be similar: “Can you tell me how to protect my reputation?” Yes, but I wouldn’t start from here.
Except, unlike a joke, a crisis is no laughing matter.
Most companies may well never encounter what may be considered to be a ‘crisis’. But, then again, they might. You might. And there’s no doubting: the bigger you are and the higher your profile, the more susceptible you are.
The thing about a crisis is that you can’t always prevent one from happening, but you can put measures in place to minimise the risk.
So what is a crisis?
Basically, an incident that makes you or your organisation look bad in a way that damages your reputation. That may be include a company experiencing financial problems, or appearing uncaring about customers or staff, or seemingly unable to cope with an operational situation, or being sexist, racist or elitist - the list goes on.
While you can write down a list of potential crisis threats (which may prompt you to make positive changes to your organisation or culture to avoid such foreseeable issues), you cannot, with any certainty, predict what form a crisis will take, when it will occur or how it might come about.
Plan for it and use your plan
What you can do is create a plan of how to respond and be ready to implement your plan should a crisis occur. Sounds simple and it is – as long as you stick to it.
Clear lines of communication, set roles and responsibilities, urgency of fact gathering and agreeing a response, and ensuring everything gets put into practice.
Sometimes people will say “That’s all obvious” or “I’ll know what to do if a crisis occurs.” Well from our experience neither statement is usually true. But one of the biggest issues in a crisis situation is time. Media and social media won’t wait for you to answer their questions at your own pace. They want to know immediately what’s gone wrong and why, and, most importantly, what you’re going to do about it.
You might have minutes or an hour or two to get your facts right and present a credible response – one that minimises the negative impact on your organisation or, maybe, if you’re lucky and because of the manner in which you responded, even puts you in a good light.
You can’t hope to achieve this if no one has been allocated a co-ordinating role, if staff haven’t been briefed as to what they should do if confronted by a crisis, or if a nominated spokesperson hasn’t been identified (and media-trained). Who does what and when.
Even if you’re the CEO and have handled similar situations in the past (in which case it’s more than likely you do have a plan in place) and you are confident you could get on it straight away, what happens if you’re in a client meeting or on holiday or at your son/daughter’s wedding? Would someone be brave enough to demand your attendance to handle the crisis?
If people are suffering and you look like you’re enjoying yourself, that’s not a good look either.
How do you respond?
The actual response will depend on the nature of the crisis, but there are some crucial points you need to cover.
First, it is essential to acknowledge the issue and the hurt that people are feeling (regardless of whether you or your organisation have done anything wrong). You must demonstrate empathy and show that you understand the situation and the effect it is having.
Second, you need to explain (in simple terms) what has happened and why and what is being done to resolve the crisis within an acceptable timescale.
Finally, you need to communicate that you understand why the crisis occurred and reassure the public that you have implemented or will implement measures to avoid a recurrence.
To read our more detailed approach to planning for a crisis, download our ‘How to… handle a crisis’ guide.