Crisis communications - Ten factors that protect your organisation

Business Continuity Forum crisis management

Over the past six months there have been a number of headline stories that have affected some of the most trusted names in business.


BP is currently battling an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, for which their Chief Executive immediately accepted all blame and responsibility (even though BP themselves were not directly responsible) and promised to cover all the costs associated with the cleanup.


Toyota has been struggling with the difficulties surrounding recalls to a number of models due to defects reported extensively in the media, and now Johnson & Johnson is facing potential damage to its reputation following the findings of the US Food and Drug Administration. The report from the FDA this week states inspectors found thick dust and grime and contaminated ingredients at the Johnson & Johnson plant that produces children's Tylenol and dozens of other products which J&J recalled last week.


Back in 1943 Johnson & Johnson's chairman, John Wood Johnson who served for more than 30 years wrote their company credo, the forerunner of a modern Mission statement. He wrote that the company's first responsibility is "to the doctors, nurses, patients and parents who use its products and ensuring that consequently everything the company does must be of high quality"



The company hit the headlines in 1982; after a number of bottles of Tylenol were maliciously laced with cyanide, seven people tragically died. However, the actions of Johnson & Johnson are seen by many expert practitioners as a textbook example of how to manage a crisis well.


Johnson & Johnson's latest action follows a number of other recalls in recent years and doubtless the organisation will be looking to smooth public concerns following the FDA report.


In the Gulf, as BP struggles to stem the flow of oil into the sea, again it will be looking over its shoulder making sure to all observers that it is working as diligently as possible to resolve the situation. Toyota are now addressing the issues identified in working to establish both media and consumer confidence.


Understanding the importance of prompt and decisive action in a crisis is essential if brand and reputation damage is to be avoided.  The costs of an incident are often just the tip of an iceberg - future success can be compromised with contracts and customers far more difficult to win. Stakeholder confidence can be shaken and share prices depressed, it can be the start of a vicious circle and be very expensive in the long-term. It is not always possible to avoid a crisis.  20:20 hindsight often highlights that there were opportunities to intervene to avoid problems, but lax controls and relaxed attitudes conspire to create the perfect conditions for poor quality assurance, opening the floodgates to a wealth of risk and potential serious financial damage.


There are a number of critical success factors that have been shown to positively influence how crises are perceived and their impact on organisations. There is no magic bullet, but honesty and pragmatism can carry you a long way in resolving the crisis.  There are 10 main principles that can be followed to help mitigate (or make the best of) the situation.




1.Strong Leadership


Strong leadership is key to establishing confidence in the way in which the organisation is responding to the crisis - it demonstrates organisation and enables consistent clear communications. The management team should be identified and a leading spokesman nominated. It should be apparent to all those affected and the media that the team has the authority and capability to act and resolve the crisis.


2. Swift decision-making


Delays and unnecessary debate will quickly undermine the confidence in your team and its approach. Decisions will need to be made promptly with no prevarication.  This does not mean undue haste; you will often need to assemble enough facts to make the right decisions. However, be aware that often a good, sound decision made promptly is far more useful than a perfect decision made too late.


3. Prompt, effective action on behalf of any people affected


It is vital that the organisation put peoples interests far ahead of cost considerations - a passenger stranded or a customer hurt needs your attention immediately. All companies are expected to behave morally.  Failure to recognise the implied duty of this expectation will translate to significant negative media and personal reaction, the exact opposite, in other words, of what you are trying to achieve.


4. Pro-active action to mitigate any environmental impact


Any industrial accident that leads to contamination or damage to our environment will inevitably attract significant attention. Not only are there harsh penalties now available to national regulators and watchdogs, ensuring the polluters pay, but the added reputational damage will accelerate losses unless the organisation is seen to act diligently to restore or rectify the situation.


5. Clear, proactive and continuous communication


Communication comes in a number of forms.  Firstly, there is communication to government or regulatory bodies, secondly, there is communication to your direct stakeholders and thirdly, there is broader communication with the press and media. For each of these channels it is important to maintain a consistent and accurate flow of information. Do not leave an information vacuum as this will be inevitably filled, at best with speculation, at worse malicious or vicious rumour. Do keep a log of all communications, and not just for those to governments or regulatory bodies.  A communications log should be set up immediately the crisis breaks.  All communication should be through the appropriate channels, ones that are agreed (beforehand, if possible) and understood within your own organisation. It is perfectly acceptable for each of these channels to have different spokesman, but it is essential that they convey not just accurate information but also communicate to ensure a common context across the channels. An important consideration for any organisation is how it is to keep its own staff informed.  Do not expect to be able to enforce a company line without considerable difficulty.  It is far better to engage honestly and directly with staff, asking for their support and cooperation. A consistent message from all levels of the company, even those "door stepped" by reporters will pay dividends in the long run.


Remember all communication should be accurate and honest - deliberately misleading statements can both be illegal and can permanently damage the company. If you make a promise, keep it! Reporters and journalists are often under huge pressures of their own, so if you cannot answer a question immediately, commit to a time by when you will have either an answer or a statement for them. Remember, they are just doing their job too.


6. Robust crisis plans with clear roles


Developing a clear set of crisis plans which explain the roles and responsibilities of the various team members, along with their authorities is key. These plans should be regularly reviewed and include general responses to a range of possible scenarios, these may include:


  • Product recalls
  • Industrial accidents
  • Terrorist incidents
  • Protest action
  • Adverse media coverage
  • Industrial action
  • Finance or regulatory issues


Spending time scoping out how you will approach the topics identified will enable you to properly focus your resources, and to define any additional assistance that may be necessary to respond to the crisis. By developing a consistent planning framework that is regularly reviewed you can also enhance the company's capability to manage events more effectively. You may wish to invest in specialist advisers, media skills training or identify companies with other specialist skills that can help resolve the difficulties you face.



7. Ensure your Crisis Management Team regularly trains and rehearses together


Having a CMT team is not enough; it should have had the opportunity to rehearse and be properly trained to achieve its objectives. Establishing a clear command and control system within the business will also be necessary to the effective management around the crisis.  Regular rehearsals enable your CMT and your operational staff to work together more effectively and collaborate in a more focused and directed way, thereby ensuring a better overall response. It is important to exercise or rehearse realistic scenarios; try to avoid a too light-hearted approach, as this will likely undermine the benefits you are looking to gain. Remember to try to recreate the pressures that will exist should the real thing happen. You may wish to invite observers or facilitators to these sessions, to provide comments and feedback on the performance of the team. Do remember, though, that this is a learning experience and feedback should be positive and encouraging. Do try to establish consistency in your CMT; appoint deputies for each role and be sure to mix up the team from time to time. One organisation we know of learned this the hard way after investing extensively in the development of its crisis management team; when the 7/7 attacks occurred in London, they discovered virtually all of the main Crisis Management team were either on holiday or overseas. Crises can strike at any time!



8. Good stakeholder relationships


It perhaps goes without saying that having good stakeholder relationships will prove invaluable should you be facing a serious crisis.  It is far easier to believe in the robust and diligent behaviour of a  company that has conducted itself with virtue and efficiency in all its dealings, than in one that has perhaps taken a shoddy or lax approach to serious events the past.  Good stakeholder relationships are the cornerstone.  Have a good Brand reputation - it is often said "it is easy to look good when things are going well, but when your backs against the wall, that's when you find out just how good you are". It's not about what you believe in the end - it's about those around you, about what they believe.  Do they trust you to do the right thing? Will they have faith in your management and systems? Will they be betting their money that you'll get through it?


Demonstrating this capability is not as easy as it may sound, but using Business Continuity Management to proactively demonstrate to your key partners that not only do you have a business relationship, but that it is founded on well tested and resilient processes can be very effective. Forging a relationship between the BCM managers in your organisation and those in your key stakeholders can demonstrate a powerful commitment and quality to your mutual relationship. An exchange of information on the procedures adopted, perhaps issuing updates on your testing and rehearsal cycles for both BCM and CMT, would prove valuable in building the confidence of these organisations in your capability. Simply put, it shows that you are taking things seriously and that you have thought through well ahead of time what will need to be done... In short, that you are professionals!


9. Effective spokespeople


Getting your message across clearly and with conviction it is absolutely vital. Carefully consider who within your organisation can convey your message most effectively. Do not make the mistake of assuming that just because your CEO is the most senior of your management team, that they are the best placed or indeed skilled person to deliver the messages you need conveyed. Depending in the nature of your markets and the size of your organisation, you may need to consider professional help in this area.  This may be through hiring a spokesperson who would work on your behalf, or training internal candidates to fulfil the role. Additionally, senior executives likely to regularly meet the press or media should consider undertaking some media skills training to enhance their ability to perform in front of a "media mob". It may seem a little unnecessary to some, but the value of this training is never felt more then when you are about to face your first press gathering in the middle of a crisis.


10. Lastly... Don't be afraid to say sorry!


Some organisations appear to be institutionally incapable of saying sorry.  Often the consideration is how things might look to insurers or regulators, but this is frequently a false supposition. Demonstrating your understanding of the difficulties of the situation, and its impact on people, is necessary to properly manage the impact of the crisis. Failure to connect with those affected, the media and even observers will add the difficulties you face.


Remember an apology for a situation does not necessarily mean that you are accepting full and complete liability.  What we would suggest is that you are instead demonstrating empathy with people and, through the other actions and preparations that we have covered in this checklist, demonstrated that you have acted reasonably as an organisation. The circumstances may vary and there may need to be professional advice, but this would have been identified from the rehearsals indicated earlier…  wouldn't it?


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