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Why good crisis communications are vital when times are tough

19/03/2020

I was talking to a friend earlier this week. She was in tears. In the space of 48 hours, her multi-million pound business had shrunk by 60%. She was telling me that her business was in crisis, that she had failed, that she was done.

I am sure these conversations were happening across Europe and the rest of the world at the same time as that call. Confidence has flat-lined, markets have crashed and everything we take for granted has started to fall through our fingers. This is one big global crisis needing some pretty serious crisis communications in the months ahead.

As my friend sobbed I found myself telling her what deep down I truly believe: that businesses are run by people, that people on the whole are reasonable, that being honest is respected and that in 2020 it won’t be growth that’s a mark of success, it’s staying in business in whatever form.

There is never a more important time than this for positive, contextual communications and unfortunately in this day and age, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get that from 24 hour rolling news channels. Good news doesn’t drive audiences and generate clicks.

The ability to be able to tell shareholders, clients, customers, partners that you have their best interest at heart, that you will be honest with them, that you are considering all scenarios to make the right decisions, that things are tough but that you are working hard. That’s good communications and when crisis looms, it’s a skill that’s vital to keep your business going.

As a communications consultant with a few grey hairs, I have seen crises come and go. Some handled well and others, mmm… not so well. I want to share that learning now, as so many businesses face crises for the first time.

The communications function is business critical

Don’t ever under-estimate the strategic importance of communications. Knowing what to say, how to say it and when to say it, can make millions of dollars of difference to a business. Listen to your advisers both within and outside of the firm and look for the key threads of what, how and when to talk to your business audiences.

Resist the knee jerk reaction

The first response in any crisis is usually the wrong one. That knee jerk reaction of defending your position, jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst (or best) doesn’t lead to good decisions and good messaging. You don’t have to respond straight away. The reality is that whilst timing is of the essence, things change. Stories can settle and disappear or evolve and pick up momentum. Be careful that you are not fanning the flames but pouring water on them.

Keep communications channels open

It’s so important not to bury your head in the sand. Communication operates best when it is two way. Keeping communications channels open creates a more positive environment for you to put your point across. If you are informing your customers about a situation, make sure that you can answer their questions; that you are listening to their concerns and taking them on-board.

Recognise the context

When dealing specifically with criticism from the media, be careful to understand the context in which the media are interested. We all know that certain media outlets have existing positions driven primarily by their readers, viewers and online audiences. Be cognisant of the audience and of the wider social, cultural and political context in which your story sits.

Think about the short, medium and long term plan

The first stage of any crisis communications is always damage limitation. What can you do to stop or slow down the story damage?  But then, there are methods to turn the reactive into proactive and even create opportunity for your business.

A few years ago At Cherish, a tech PR client was facing a crisis caused by a glitch in the company’s software. Their major retailer and distribution partner shut down their online channel and immediately escalated the problem, and the media attention. Together as client, leadership and communications teams, and Cherish as their UK PR agency,  we formed a communications committee and agreed that there had been a genuine mistake, and the dev team must quickly solve it. Crisis communications then moved into action. We drafted a statement, mindful of the broader media context and we kept communications channels open. This ensured the media were positive and honest because they knew we were talking to them, and doing the best we could.

When the story had settled, we set about working with trusted outlets and influencers to explain what had happened. This culminated a month or so later with the Chief Executive using the crisis as the topic of his presentation at a major industry conference. The industry gave him a standing ovation, such was the honesty and responsibility that he and his organisation demonstrated.

So in this time of global crisis, don’t shy away from talking about it. Reach out and talk to your  investors, shareholders, clients, customers, partners. They know that things aren’t great. Explain that you have a plan in place and that you are working damned hard to deliver it. Be honest, show responsibility and communicate well and you will find that you may, just may, come out even better on the other side.

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