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Crisis communications: When you mess up, fess up


Written by Lynsey Barry

If there’s one thing that has the potential to ruin a business’ hard fought reputation, it’s the mishandling of a crisis. They come in all shapes and sizes, appear from out of nowhere and escalate at pace. Perhaps a product malfunctioned, a package didn’t get delivered, or someone said something they shouldn’t have. As business people, we manage risk all of the time. But, in my experience, a worrying number of organisations don’t consider crisis communications planning essential.

There are plenty of examples of incidents hitting the headlines or building a head of steam on social media.

Think of British Airways’ data breaches, Volkswagen and #DieselGate and Facebook’s hiring a PR agency to target its detractors. All drove masses of negative coverage and, arguably, impacted the public’s trust in the brands.

But too often companies leave it to chance. They either fail to prepare, or they take a conscious decision to not engage a crisis communications plan. That’s as good as preparing to fail and usually frustrates the public even further.

Although developing a crisis communications strategy might seem complex, it can be surprisingly straightforward. You just need to consider a few things.

Are you crisis communications ready?

The idea crisis communications is only for big, publicly-listed companies is just plain wrong.

Yes, they tend to be under greater scrutiny and their size means there’s more scope for things to go wrong. But issues can crop up in any business and that warrants preparing a solid plan.

There aren’t too many people in the business world who haven’t heard of Cambridge Analytica. It was accused of harvesting personal data from millions of Facebook users without permission to target US voters.

But it only had 250 employees. The damning revelations rapidly accelerated public awareness and the company was forced to close its doors for good. It’s a valuable reminder that disaster can strike SMEs as well as enterprises.

Smaller businesses might not have access to the same advice or the financial resources to cushion the blow of a customer exodus, but their size is a massive advantage.

They can move quickly and respond to incidents before they get out of hand. There aren’t multiple tiers of approval, so they can get on and do.

Using that agility at a time of crisis can be a huge advantage. Using it to formulate a proactive plan ahead of time shows smart thinking.

Crisis communications – say what?

Before we jump into the dos and don’ts, I want to tackle some common misconceptions about crisis communications.

Every issue is a crisis

All businesses experience issues on a regular basis. Some will be more significant than others. But by no means should every issue be treated as a crisis. It will exhaust people and prevent you from the business of making your company a success. You should be very clear in your view of how the two differ, when one becomes the other and processes through which you manage them.

Silence is golden

A failure to communicate in a crisis immediately suggests a lack of control or an attempt to obfuscate the truth. When the eyes of the media are on your organisation, they will poke and prod to find a hint of a story. Any suggestion that you’re attempting to close a story down, rather than sharing information to help explain what you can puts your business on the ropes.

Communication will fix the crisis

This is absolutely, unequivocally not the case. As with all great communication, it has to be based on substance. Simply saying things means nothing without the action to make it a reality. Communications can mitigate the impact of a crisis, but your operations will fix the crisis.

Crisis communications is complicated and difficult 

It’s not. It’s a lot of common sense, close integration of work and a clear, consistent message that make it work. for a well organised business, crisis communications is seamless.

How to get started

Responding to a crisis effectively is a hard thing to do, especially if you’ve never experienced one before. Following these steps will make life a little bit easier:

  • Prioritise high-risk areas: You can’t plan  for every eventuality, no matter what size business you are. Instead, focus on where you’re most exposed and tier the issues in terms of their potential severity.

  • Be proactive: Don’t let the media – or your competitors – drive the discussion. Don’t leave a vacuum. Take the bull by the horns and get ahead of the narrative as quickly as possible.

  • Say the same thing everywhere: With so many different channels of communication available today, consistency matters. Yes, you can adapt the tone for the channel if needed, but make sure there is a consistent message throughout media relations, social and digital channels and customer service teams. Every touchpoint has to be aligned.

  • Put a process in place: Develop, test and establish a watertight process to ensure that everything works like clockwork when the time comes. From centralising contact details for all key stakeholders (PR, social, customer service, spokespeople, execs etc) to creating decision trees. Even knowing your enquiry handling rules and SLAs for responses.

  • Learn from the mistakes of others: There’s no shortage of examples of high-profile companies failing spectacularly at crisis management. Take note of what they did wrong – and what they did right – and learn from it.

Key tip: ‘Sorry’ shouldn’t be the hardest word

As wise as Sir Elton John is, when it comes to crisis communications, ‘sorry’ definitely shouldn’t be the hardest word.

In fact, one of the worst things a business can do when facing a PR emergency is to not apologise. A lot of brands shy away from saying sorry because they believe it comes across as an admission of guilt that could land them with legal cases, but it can actually be an extremely powerful way of getting consumers back on side.

In the majority of cases, all customers want is for the company to admit what it did wrong and make a sincere apology.

It shows that they understand the problems their customers have faced and recognise that something went wrong. A simple apology can go a long way towards calming a potentially volatile situation. Getting the tone right matters and there are plenty of high-profile examples of this.

When Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi issued a very public apology to the city of London for the company’s past mistakes, for example. KFC’s humorous apology for running out of chicken helped calm a social media storm. And brands like Innocent correcting their own wording in the perfect brand tone for them:

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We’re on our final warning.

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Some businesses are taking it a step further still, opting to embrace potential bad news. Just take a look at this example from Oatly.

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Of course, it’s not always the easy option. There have been many instances where attempts at an apology fail dismally.

BP CEO Tony Hayward immediately springs to mind. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in 2010, Hayward’s so-called ‘apology’ focused on how the incident had affected his life, saying: “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

Clearly this is not the way to apologise – Hayward’s ill advised comments eventually forced him into resigning from the company later that year – but, if handled correctly, a sincere ‘sorry’ can go a long way.

So, just remember, if you mess up, fess up.