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Why it’s essential to have an effective crisis communication plan
Even in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still businesses that do not have a crisis communication plan.
Crazy huh? But it’s true.
Of course, the human psyche does everything it can to convince itself, ‘It won’t happen to me!’ ‘I’m not that stupid!’ ‘They’re the idiots!’
If your sales are soaring and profits happily heading northwards, then you may well feel invincible. The trouble is: no one is.
So, if you don’t have a crisis communications plan in place, this blog will explain why you need one and how to create one. There will be cautionary tales along the way. And the odd laugh (we hope) when we tell you how KFC used humour to quieten a storm.
Even if you do have a CCP in place, we’ll give you some tips to make it even more effective so that you’re as prepared for a crisis as you can be.
What is a crisis?
A business crisis is any type of event that causes a major disturbance for an organisation. A crisis typically occurs suddenly and poses intense difficulty or danger for the business, usually in a situation where time is short and decisions have to be taken quickly. Given that it is anything that could threaten your company’s reputation or its ability to continue as a going concern, it is critical to have a crisis communication plan.
Here are some potential crises to get you thinking:
- Natural disasters – any natural environmental occurrence including earthquakes (and yes these happen regularly in the British Isles), flooding, wind damage or even a global pandemic.
- Technological disasters – imagine what would happen to your business if you experienced a major IT meltdown or a cyber-attack. These could hamper your ability to work effectively and could even cause leaks of customer data in breach of GDPR.
- Accidental disasters – injury or death of an employee due to a fire or explosion or faulty equipment, or by people using machinery they are not trained to operate.
Other examples of potential business disasters include:
- Theft or vandalism – imagine how you’d be affected by the theft of IT equipment helping you carry out business-critical operations. Vandalism of vital machinery or vehicles could be hugely damaging too.
- Power cut – it’s impossible to predict a sudden loss of power. Yet such a loss could have serious consequences for your ability to keep on operating.
- Restricted access to premises – if your staff couldn’t access your workplace (for example, due to a gas leak) you may have a business continuity crisis on your hands.
- Loss or illness of key staff – you need to be prepared for the absence of key members of your team, through illness or death.
- Outbreak of disease or infection – as we’ve seen with COVID-19, an outbreak of an infectious disease can be disastrous.
- Terrorist attack – it is best to plan for all eventualities and terrorist attacks can happen anywhere at any time. You need to consider the risks to your employees and business operations from a terrorist strike, either where you are located or where you and your employees travel.
- Crises affecting suppliers – what would happen if your main supplier went bust? Are you prepared?
- Crises affecting reputation – how would you cope, for example, in the event of a product recall or a social media post gone wrong?
Why do I need to prepare – it may never happen?
The COVID-19 global pandemic came out of the blue. Governments in Western Europe, North and South America were particularly ill-prepared, leaving many in a fluster as to what to do.
The pandemic has proved that it can happen and not a single business or sector has been left untarnished by this global disaster. Of course, it has opened up opportunities – evidenced by the fact that 2020 has been hailed as the ‘Year of the Start-up’ with a record 770,000 new businesses created.
In 2019/20, the Health and Safety Executive found that there had been 92 deaths at companies due to a variety of reasons. If a death happens at your business, the media will be on to you like flies around manure.
The deaths occurred in all manner of industry sectors and roles, including people working in retail, admin & support services, accommodation and food. By far the highest, recording 40 deaths, was the construction sector.
We hope this gives you the idea that no business is immune from the possibility of a crisis, no matter how well-run.
How to create a crisis comms plan
There are many ways of creating a crisis communication plan, so we tailor strategies to our individual clients’ needs.
However, here’s a set of steps to prepare most businesses for a crisis:
- Anticipate the crises. Different businesses across various sectors will likely be more susceptible to certain types of problems than others. For example, hotels, restaurants and pubs are more likely to suffer fires; manufacturing and construction sites are more likely to experience employee injuries – or deaths – during the course of their work. Whatever line of work you are in, you should brainstorm which types of incident are most likely to affect you. Here are some things to think about: onsite death or injury; fire, fuel leak, explosion; contamination; machinery breakdown; cyber-attack / hacking of client data; failing to perform a task in line with a customer requirement; failing to comply with an industry-standard; product recalls – the list goes on.
- Identify who needs to know. This is where excellent stakeholder management comes in. You need to make a list of anyone who may come into contact with your business, or be affected by it, including the media. This could include people living close to your premises, local neighbourhood groups and local authorities, clients, investors, employees, regulators and so on. Be sure to have a contact name and details for every stakeholder group.
- Appoint a crisis communications team. At the very least, this must include senior management, divisional heads, your public relations adviser and legal counsel.
- Identify your media spokespeople. For this step you must appoint someone with a cool head who can remain calm even in the most stressful of situations. Ideally, it will be your CEO or business owner who should be the person with the most profound insight into your business and therefore best equipped to answer challenging questions. Ensure that your PR adviser is always kept in the loop as it may be necessary to call upon him or her to step in and help with press inquiries.
- Media training. Here, you need to bring in a PR and comms specialist, preferably a former journalist, who can grill you about a host of potential crises. It must be someone with experience of what the harshest of journalist may ask – and remember nothing is off-limits. The training should be recorded and transcribed, so that the trainer can critique your answers and ensure what you say is relevant and concise. Always.
- Q&As. If you hire a brilliant crisis communications manager, they will be able to draw up a list of potential questions – AND answers. It is hugely helpful to have these in place and to rehearse them now and then, as this will familiarise you with questioning techniques and provide a solid foundation on how to answer direct and open questions most appropriately. Your trainer will also guide you as to when it is appropriate not to answer.
- Establish a notification system. You’ve already established who needs to know what and when. Now you must decide how best to reach them. These days it’s best to have a multi-platform strategy. Not everyone will pick up their phone when you call or be on hand to see an email or a Tweet or a Facebook notice. The best thing is to design a means of communicating through every channel at once so that you reach as many of your stakeholders as possible, exactly when you need to. It may be advisable to set up a helpline or an information page on your website in some cases.
- Develop holding statements. While the entire message cannot be developed until a crisis arises, pre-crisis is the perfect time to develop ‘holding statements’ defining your messaging across a range of scenarios. These can be used as a basis for the development of a full statement when needed and will undoubtedly make your job handling a crisis far simpler.
- Set up a digital newsroom. Be sure to have an online newsroom where you publish all your company’s news as this will be the best place to post developments in the case of an emergency. You should also be prepared to set up an emergency press office, onsite, in the event of a crisis. This way, you will have an expert on-hand who can handle inbound media queries on your behalf, rather than no one being available, which would look bad for your company. This person will most likely be your crisis communications manager or the crisis expert at your PR agency.
- Have systems in place for post-crisis analysis. In almost every aspect of life, something can be done better after lessons have been learned. Crisis management is no different. A formal analysis of what was done right, what was done wrong, what could be done better next time and how to improve various elements of crisis preparedness is another must-do activity for any crisis communications team.
KFC's FCK Bucket triumph
The KFC chicken shortage of 2018 could have fried this established brand. The fast-food chicken shop chain ran out of chicken in most of its 870 UK & Ireland restaurants after an unfortunate series of events led to delivery delays from its warehouses.
KFC’s PR and marketing experts acted quickly, rolling out witty ads in newspapers with the KFC letters rearranged on the iconic bucket to own their mistake.
Furthermore, KFC maintained a page on its website dedicated to ‘chickengate’ so customers could check the chicken status of their local restaurants. KFC’s crisis PR team also kept on top of the news by answering questions via social media almost daily.
KFC did everything transparently, swiftly, and true to its brand voice, making everyone put their torches away and celebrate the brand’s honesty and humility.
BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster
In complete contrast to KFC, BP did everything it could to blame anyone apart from itself when disaster struck. In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded (pictured above), killing 11 men and creating the biggest marine oil spill in history.
The way BP’s management and PR advisers handled the situation has become a textbook example of how not to handle a crisis.
Instead of issuing an apology, explaining the steps it was taking to stop the leak and help everyone affected by the disaster, the then-chief executive Tony Haywood made repeated insensitive comments, like this one: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.”
As if that wasn’t enough, in June, with the crisis still flaring, Hayward took time off work to go sailing with his son, a move for which he received widespread criticism. He lost his job at BP in 2011.
Along with the reputational cost, Reuters reported that the financial costs came in at around $65 billion.
It's best to hire a specialist
The examples given above demonstrate starkly different outcomes between a crisis handled well – by experts – and a crisis handled badly.
It is vital to appoint a crisis management expert. There is a big difference between ‘feeling ready’ and ‘being ready’.
Your expert should have these qualities:
Empathy. A great crisis comms manager understands the impact of the crisis on all stakeholders and knows the importance of communicating with empathy.
Proactive – It’s important have someone who understands that a crisis could happen at any time, who can look past the improbable and into the possible.
Calm and positive – You will need someone who can keep calm under duress, so that they are able to focus on the desired outcome as well as the immediate crisis.
Confident – A good crisis manager will communicate with authority.
Decisive – You’ll need a crisis leader who’s capable of confronting the issue head-on, fully understand it and make decisions that consider the wellbeing of employees, stakeholders, the business and the public.
Represents the best of your business – It is important to select a crisis manager who has a deep understanding of your business and its risks. They must communicate in line with your overall brand persona always bearing in mind your top-level goals and objectives.
Every business needs a crisis communications plan so that they are prepared for the worst. It is foolish for any company to assume it is immune from crises. If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us: no one is.
The ability to act quickly, in an appropriate way and to communicate what you are doing both internally and externally, will keep stakeholders on-side and help you retain your organisation’s reputation. A crisis handled well can even boost your reputation and trustworthiness.