Rethinking crisis communication

crisis communication

Organizations worldwide are experiencing an environment of elevated reputational risk, forcing them to rethink their approach to issues and crisis management. Today’s risk landscape does not allow for companies to start tackling a crisis when it breaks; rather, they need to proactively work on a three-dimensional resilience plan that covers the periods before, during and after risk.

While there are many tactical approaches to crisis communication, there are two very important aspects that are shifting the way stakeholders perceive and experience an organization going through an incident, issue or crisis of any sort. These are, in principle, the speed of response and resolution, and how business leaders “show up” in a crisis.

The two are closely linked, given that speed has been largely driven by the digital age and social media; while leadership is usually more conservative and considered in their approach—and evidence shows this in the number of companies that still take far too long to respond. And rightly so. They need the time to consider the impact before they respond. After all, share prices (or the equivalent) are at stake.

The issue is this: Before the leadership has even convened their Global Crisis Management Team to discuss the situation, the crisis has already gathered speed-of-light momentum on social media. And that is the bottom line. It’s out there for the world to see. And all eyes are on how one responds.

Added to this complex interrelationship, our role as reputation managers is to be the strategic advisers to business and stand our ground in encouraging our organizations to critically balance our legal and regulatory license to operate (along with our colleagues from risk, legal and compliance) with our social license to operate. We are now in the realm of ethics and morality versus legal correctness. And these are not easy conversations. Anyone who has been in a “war room” at 4 a.m. planning a response will know that emotions run high and there are conflicting views as to what the course of action should be.

It is a balancing act. Perhaps 10 years ago, an organization would have argued that because they are legally correct, they can stick by that assertion. There are so many examples that prove otherwise today.

I am reminded of an insurance company whose client was shot in a hijacking. Because of a complex legality around disclosure of high blood sugar levels many years before the shooting, the insurer repudiated the widow’s claim. Even the insurance ombudsman said this company was legally correct.

But the social media backlash was like a tsunami. It didn’t take days, but hours to unravel. The more the leaders went on radio and TV to argue the legal correctness of their decision, even posting explanatory FAQs on Twitter, the louder the social media noise became. Eventually—and by eventually, I mean about 48 hours—they backtracked. They paid the widow and changed their policies. And there are so many more examples.

It was an expensive and totally unnecessary lesson. With nothing more than an agile approach to issues management, a more values-based engagement model, and a more empathetic leadership, the risk could have largely been mitigated.

I am reminded of what social work researcher and author Brené Brown said of empathy and courageous leadership. It takes an extraordinary leader to be able to see the world as others see it—not how you think you are showing up, but to transcend the situation and be willing to see how others are experiencing you in the moment. To appreciate why the public may see you in a way you don’t personally understand or agree with. Perhaps then, they would see that their corporatespeak is simply not connecting with the world.

Once stakeholders can see how they are being perceived, they need to be visible and show empathy. And this can be easier said than done. Brown has spoken a lot about vulnerability. She has said it sounds like truth and feels like courage. In crisis communication, when faced with complex legal decisions that need to be balanced so social ethics, it’s time to make courageous decisions. The public wants to hear the truth, and depending on the severity of the situation, they want to hear it from the leader. Here, a bit of empathy goes a long way.

This principle applies not only to leaders but to the communication teams as well. Communicators can and should take a proactive approach to managing reputation long before a crisis hits. The same principles can be adopted and applied in a proactive strategy.

Once stakeholders can accept prevailing sentiment, which sometimes requires a degree of vulnerability and recognizing that at a point in time customers may be experiencing the organization differently to the way its leaders think they are, we can move forward. We can show empathy. We can connect.

Last year, I received a New Year’s message from an airline. And the first paragraph read as follows: “I’m writing to thank you for your continued custom in 2017. Your business is incredibly important to us and we don’t take it for granted. We have learned some lessons in this past year and where we have fallen short, we have listened and are putting things right.” This was not a crisis. But this company recognized that as much as they likely thought they were amazing; their customers were frustrated. And they capitalized on the opportunity to show empathy and vulnerability and to connect on a way forward.

While no two crises are the same, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to issues management, a proactive and well-tested crisis communication plan can not only save and build a company’s reputation, but at times, mitigate significant potential losses.

In the end, it will be the organizations that understand, protect and enhance their reputational assets that will maintain shareholder value and brand equity in the long run. It will also be those who are willing to show empathy and connection that will retain their social license to operate.

Daniel Munslow

Daniel Munslow is a Director of MCC Consulting and has 14 years’ experience in business communications and consulting; working across multiple industries in numerous African countries. He started off his career in journalism at Primedia and later as a producer and presenter at the SABC. He then moved into corporate communication and later consulting. As an independent consultant, he focuses on strategic communication consulting, leadership training, communication research and measurement, strategy development, crisis communication and reputation management. Daniel is also a director on the IABC's international executive board and outgoing chair for IABC Africa. He speaks at local and international conferences on business communication and was voted an All Star speaker at the IABC World Conference in 2012. Daniel was asked to represent South Africa at the World PR Forum in Toronto in May 2016 on the state of business communication in Africa.

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