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Crisis management: eight ways to keep calm and carry on

There’s no denying a crisis is an uncomfortable situation for any business and any communications or media team. As part of our Infoshare training programme, we had some fun with our teams in Wellington and Auckland role-playing a crisis management scenario. While it can be more art than science there are eight core tenets that we’ve found valuable when called in to advise on a crisis.

1. Don’t panic

When you’re in the middle of a crisis, and particularly one which is getting media and social media attention, it feels like the world is about to end. It’s not. You don’t have to think too hard to remember awkward situations from which companies and brands have recovered fully. Cruise ships have sunk. People have been pulled off planes by their ankles. Horse meat has been found in beef burgers. Keep your head. Focus on the task at hand and this too shall pass.

2. Agree how you’d like to be remembered

It is worth taking a moment and agreeing as a team how you’d like to be remembered once it’s over. Start with your values. If, for example, your values say “people are the heart of our company” there has never been a better time to demonstrate that this is the case.

3. Concern is always the first message

Understand that people, their lives, their values, and maybe their well-being, are involved. Not “reading the room” and showing concern and compassion makes the organization and the spokesperson appear unfeeling. The classic is the CEO of an oil company who on national TV passionately exclaimed his feelings about the impact of the crisis on his own life. Not the best idea when people had lost their jobs and livelihoods as large areas of coastline and birdlife were covered in oil, and fisheries and hundreds of businesses were closed.

4. Get the decision-maker in the room

You need to be able to make decisions quickly. You need the decision-maker in the room or prepared to be disturbed at all hours of the day and night. Decisive action to fix the cause of the issue and agreeing what you will communicate with stakeholders is essential in bringing an issue to a close. Decision by committee will see opportunities missed and others control the agenda.

5. Map your stakeholders from the start

Knowing who you must communicate with, which stakeholders are most influential and who owns that relationship is essential. In our opinion, every meeting of the crisis committee should go through the stakeholders one by one and agree what, if any, action/communication needs to be taken.

6. Act

Your business or organization must do something. You must act beyond communications. You cannot communicate yourself out of whatever crisis the business has got itself into, without addressing the fundamental cause. As a PR practitioner, one of your first questions must be, “What are we doing about it?”.

7. Questions are the answer

A crisis isn’t static. Your role as the media or corporate communications person is to keep challenging assumptions. In almost every crisis we’ve worked on, what we were told we were dealing with at the beginning, became something very different by the end. Keep asking questions.

8. Ask for help

We spend all day, every day, obsessing about the minutiae of our organisations. This can lead to us being ‘too close’ to an issue or topic, making it harder for us to see things from the perspective of our stakeholders. When you’re dealing with a crisis the tendency is to retreat inwards. Seeking external crisis management expertise can let you test your thinking, and receive guidance, from specialists who aren’t as in the weeds as you are. Independence can help challenge your thinking or actions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Warren Buffet is often quoted as saying “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” It doesn’t have to be this way. Good crisis management combined with a business determined to do the right thing can limit the damage to your reputation and, in the best-case scenario, enhance it.