Managing Crisis Communications

Written by Katharina Scholtz, published in Gotta Quirk in 2009 but still so relevant today.

It’s 2am and you get a call saying that the range of vitamins your company manufactures has just turned the tongues of twenty kids permanently blue. There are angry and Web savvy parents tweeting, mailing, blogging, phoning and letting the world know that your brand has done some damage. The media run stories citing studies done about the psychological damage of the “smurf complex”. What do you do? What do you do? (*serious face)

According to Vanessa Baard, the director for managing Financial Services at Fleishman-Hillard, you should turn to the crisis communications plan you would have in place for any kind of reputation crisis (if you don’t have one, this is a good time to make a mental note). Vanessa has extensive experience in this kind of communication, and loves the speed at which things unfold. “Crisis communications differ from a normal communications plan only in terms of speed”. You need to be fast and you need to be pro-active. “People generally accept that bad things can happen, what they want to know is what you are going to do about it”.

Vanessa listed her favourite example; when an airline CEO showed up at the airport in his pyjamas, telling the media that he had just heard the bad news and would be back in an hour, as soon as he had gathered the relevant information. He was true to his word and came back in a suit he had had couriered to the scene.

“You should sit down and make a list of the things that could go wrong and designate the relevant people to approach at a time like this”. While you can’t account for every situation, you know your business well and should be able to put a working plan in place. It’s really important that everyone knows who is the sole communicator, as consistency (which is easier when information comes from one source) and frequent updates are really important.

When a crisis of any nature occurs, Vanessa shared, a team is normally assembled. “It’s important to keep it as small as possible, but you want to make sure you have all the important information and the people who have that information at hand”.

She then typically puts together a fact sheet, and ensures that all information is updated often. While a legal team is typically not involved, certain situations do call for that. “The question of admitting guilt is tricky”, you want to acknowledge that there is a problem but no company wants to open itself up to a lawsuit.

While Vanessa acknowledged that the digital world has had a great impact on the speed with which news spreads, she feels that “the communications principles have remained the same”. There are now just more channels to monitor. “Ten years ago, when the Ellis Park stampede occurred, we only had to check radio, TV and print”, these days it can be tough to keep an eye on every source online (*thank goodness we are more sophisticated now).

Vanessa did point out that it’s difficult to know the ways in which you should engage. “It’s best to have a central point like a website where all information is shared”, in terms of whether or not to engage with individual bloggers, it should be measured on a case by case basis. “You want to check what the person’s sphere of influence is”, while every issue is important, one wouldn’t launch a full out campaign in response to one person – there may be a better way to attend to his or her needs.

I came across an interesting example of how to deal with these issues on a small scale the other day, when I shared the news that a Sky News article had miss-spelt a deceased serjeant’s title. I was contacted shortly after (via Twitter) by Paul Bromley, the Viewers’ Editor for Sky News.

As the Viewers’ Editor, his task is to promote interactivity and make sure the brand integrity is protected. “When false information about Sky News is being reported and circulated in any medium, we respond as soon as practicable in that medium. Our aim is both to rectify any wrong information and to prevent it being distributed any further.”

This is a minor example, but given that Sky has identified an important part of their brand integrity, they have an ongoing plan for when mistakes or misinformation like this spreads.

It’s important to have ongoing policies for events of this nature, both internally and externally. This is something that Ellen Simonetti (a.k.a. Queen of the Sky) can say from first hand experience. When her airline fired her for having a personal blog that mentioned her work, both the airline and her personal brand were affected.

“They should make sure that they have a clear policy in place and that all employees are informed of that policy. And, if there is a potentially high-profile online “situation”, the company should first allow the employee to handle it as best they can (pull down the offensive material and perhaps issue a public apology), rather than treat the employee like a little child by scolding and disciplining them.”

Whether internally or externally, the key to a reputation crisis is sharing what you know and having access to the relevant information at the right time. A communications team can play the important role of helping you craft your communication – the key here is to attend to these situations in a speedy and organised way. You have to match what you are saying with action. “And never lie”, the one rule Vanessa could list as relevant to all and any situation, people will always find out.