How an organisation manages a crisis is crucial to its reputation. The CIPR defines crisis management as “having a plan in place that can be effectively actioned when something goes wrong for an organisation.” (CIPR) Although you cannot predict when a crisis will break, the key to effective crisis management is having a crisis communications procedure and strategy in place so that you are prepared when one does arise. It is essential that you ‘prepare for the worst’ when it comes to dealing with a crisis. The crisis could go either way and if dealt with in time, could disappear. That’s why we’ve included best practices and everything you need to create your very own crisis communications strategy for your organisation.
Types of Crises
Each crisis is unique but there are a number of possible scenarios that can be defined as a potential trigger point for your organisation. Here are some examples of the types of crises and some real life examples:
Product failure or recall
In 2016, Samsung had to initiate a recall of 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 handsets due to faulty batteries that overheated and exploded. This was a disaster of unprecedented proportions that has cost them £4 billion in losses and lost sales. Samsung tried to contain the situation, stating that the faulty batteries came from one factory and they had shifted production to another supplier. They warned customers who owned the devices to switch off their handset and began shipping replacement devices to retailers so they could replace the affected models for safe phones. However, the crisis went from bad to worse, when the replacement phones began exploding. The way Samsung handled the crisis was less than admirable.
People swarmed to social media labelling the Samsung device ‘Death Note’ and shared pictures and videos of their phones exploding and catching fire. Misinformation spreads quickly and there were rumours of other Samsung devices exploding. Samsung’s approach was less than urgent and it highlighted Samsung’s poor crisis management plan. They were slow to respond and it had a detrimental effect on their reputation. Practitioners need to be able to track what is being said and respond immediately.
One of the most catastrophic data breaches of recent times occurred in 2017 when credit advisors Equifax were hacked. 148 million records that included social security numbers, addresses and credit card information were compromised due to several security vulnerabilities in their system. These breaches went undetected from May 2017 to July 2017.
The thought of any type of customer identity or monetary theft is enough to send any internal comms or marketing professional into a state of fright, never mind on this scale.
Equifax’s response came under intense scrutiny. Not only did it take until September to report the breach, they were criticised for poor planning and execution of messages that only served to heighten distrust in the organisation. Technology magazine, Wired stated: “The company's official Twitter account has mistakenly tweeted a phishing link four times, instead of the company's actual breach response page.”
Equifax’s crisis mitigation strategy did not serve to mitigate at all, instead shelling out $700 million in compensation. The value of a swift, but well thought-out comms strategy that aligned with the messaging that they had learned from their mistakes, may have brought some good-will. Instead it was hap-hazard and cost them dearly.
Failure in technology
In May 2017, an IT system outage cost British Airways over $80 million and ground operations to a halt for nearly a week. Perhaps even more damaging was the impact on reputation both internally and externally, with thousands of flights cancelled leaving passengers stranded and crew members unaware of where they needed to be.
Whilst BA took to social media to apologise, it is reported that employees were not well informed and could not assist affected customers. Aviation Consultant, John Strickland said about the crisis: “If your manpower is not up to proper planned establishment then you’re really floundering even more.” The annoyance this caused demonstrated the need to equip employees with real-time , accurate information in order to deal with customers and keep them informed during a crisis.
Furthermore, despite a BA spokesperson saying they were “undertaking an exhaustive investigation to ensure that this can never happen again”, a similar system breakdown in August 2019 caused more flight cancellations and further comparisons with the crisis two years earlier . Ensure that your messaging is backed up by actions in order to rebuild and maintain trust often lost in a crisis.
Online furniture retailer Made.com, had to stop taking orders and were plunged into administration in November 2022 as a result of supply-chain problems and soaring costs.
When dealing with the news that Made’s leadership ultimately mitigated responsibility by blaming factors outside their control, with Made.com’s Chief Executive, Nicola Thompson saying: "Made is a much loved brand that was highly successful and well adapted, over many years, to a world of low inflation, stable consumer demand, reliable and cost efficient global supply chains and limited geo-political volatility.That world vanished.”
Despite retailer Next agreeing to purchase product and naming rights, Made.com were criticised deeply over their communication with staff over redundancies, resulting in many outgoing employees threatening legal action. 573 staff were made redundant over Zoom and as a result many are pursuing compensation for the employer’s failure of duty, as by law they did not follow the proper consultation process for making staff redundant.
Comms in a significant financial crisis, particularly if legal considerations are needed, must be well planned and executed in accordance to any relevant policy or legislation, or risk even further damage to the organisation.
Our blog on Priorities for Internal Comms outlines how you can manage fallout from a comms crisis.
Characteristics of a Comms Crisis
PWC reports that 69% of business leaders have experienced a crisis over a period of five years. They’re nothing new, but how do you define a communications crisis? A crisis situation has distinct characteristics and can be further defined as follows:
- Is unexpected
- Has elements of the unknown and escalating intensity
- Interrupts normal business operations
- Impacts your organisation’s external reputation
- Impacts your organisation’s financial performance
- Impacts customers
There are a number of early warning signs that may hit your organisation and having a crisis comms plan establishes a structure and procedure to be followed once any of the following early warning signs are observed:
- Contact from the media
- Customer complaints
- Notification of a legal issue
- Contact from a customer or third party supplier
- Publication of a broadcast of a negative news report
- Increased internet discussions
Defining the Crisis
A systematic approach should be used to help determine the best actions to ensure that negative consequences are proactively managed and you should answer the following questions.
- How urgent is the crisis/event?
- Is a deadline for communications externally and internally agreed?
- What will happen if nothing is communicated?
- Will the problem get worse?
- Does the crisis/event have the potential for growth?
- How serious is the problem?
- What are the effects on people, products, reputation, organisation, etc.?
- What are the PAST reasons/events or who was at fault?
- How do you correct the PRESENT issue or situation?
- How do you prevent future issues or situations?
Agreeing the response
The JOTW Communications Survey found that 55% of business communicators do not have a documented crisis communication plan. A well-planned, structured response is essential to getting it right.
Once you have evaluated the situation, you need to determine the appropriate action and a written or verbal statement or response will be needed. The agreed response will need to be approved by key stakeholders, depending on the severity of the crisis. After the response has been approved, key audiences will need to be communicated with honestly and openly, and in a timely fashion. A full channel strategy should also be prepared to ensure all audiences are communicated to.
The message map should cover the following:
- Stakeholders: who the message is going to
- Question or concern: the issue to address and focus on
- Key messages (1-3): 3 key concise messages, brief (9 seconds), and clear (27 words) written in plain English for increased audience understanding
- Supporting information (1-3): amplifies the key messages by providing additional facts or details. Supporting information can also take the form of visuals, analogies, personal stories or citations of credible information sources
Key questions should be considered when mapping responses:
- What happened?
- Who is in charge?
- Has the issue been contained?
- Are customers being helped/how?
- What can we expect?
- What should customers do?
- Why/how did this happen?
- Did you have forewarning?
The following “Four Rs” of crisis communications should also be considered, but may not be applicable in every situation:
The first thing you should do is express concern that a problem has developed - even if it was not your organisation’s fault
Whether the cause of the problem was your organisation’s fault or not, your organisation should be prepared to take responsibility for solving the problem. Your actions will reinforce words and provide a credible demonstration of your organisation’s commitment to doing the right thing.
Your various stakeholder audiences must know you are taking steps to ensure the problem will not happen again.
If appropriate, detail how you will help those who have been affected by the problem.
A five-step model for preparing messages
Express empathy, listening, caring or compassion as a first statement
State the key messages
State supporting information
Repeat the key messages
State future actions
A Deloitte study found that 28% of businesses that have been through a crisis would communicate more effectively if they were to go through one again. This suggests that each audience group needs to be deliberated. Consider which key audiences or stakeholders need to be targeted. Prepare a comprehensive stakeholder map. Revisit the list of potential stakeholders as the crisis evolved to reflect changes in audiences as needed. Develop a quick view contact list.
Normally, you would need to consider the most appropriate channels for contacting key audiences, appropriate to the crisis event. However, using Oak Engage’s curated content system means you can spend less time worrying about how your audiences will receive the message and can focus more time and effort on making sure the content you send is compelling and actionable. It enables you to cut through the noise and get the right message to the right people at the right time and that everyone is kept informed in the best possible way for them.
You also need to determine possible “starting questions” that can be utilised to help quickly determine any misinformation that might be circulating within your organisation and allow for targeted responses, such as:
- What do they need to know about the source of the problem?
- How is the company resolving the situation?
- What are our people expected to do regarding the situation?
A key risk that needs to be considered with crisis communications is an internal leak and the risk that staff may share information externally that your organisation may not want to share. Here are some controls that you can put in place to mitigate this risk:
- Comprehensive internal communications that promote two-way communication with your staff and help share with them what information is available externally
- Training of frontline staff will be important to help them understand how to deal with media enquiries
- Q&A should be prepared and made available for all staff (especially frontline staff)
Another risk is that the crisis becomes a viral conversation on social media or that the crisis news becomes top on search listings. 56.8% of the global population use social media and Ofcom claim that half of all adults in the UK use it as a news source. Make sure you work closely with your organisation’s PR team to make sure these controls are in place:
- Awareness of social media conversations is key. Social media will need to be closely monitored by your organisation to ensure that you are protecting your organisation’s reputation as much as possible. Use custom queries to monitor this along with sentiment analysis.
- Standard responses should be developed to use in the case of a crisis, and a recommendation to point people to one location to get all available information would help mitigate online conversations that we may not be able to control
We hope the above helps you create your very own crisis communications strategy in your organisation. Utilising channels such as an employee intranet and employee engagement platform will allow you to communicate with your people more effectively. In times of uncertainty, clear and timely communication is the cornerstone of maintaining trust and stability within your team. At Oak Engage, we understand the significance of staying connected, especially in challenging times. Leveraging the right tools and strategies ensures that your messages reach the right people at the right time, reducing potential misunderstandings and panic. Remember, in the face of a crisis, preparedness and efficient communication can make all the difference. Stay connected, stay informed, and always prioritise the well-being of your team.
📖 Recommended reading:
- Internal storytelling: A guide for internal comms [with video guides]
- Internal audiences: how to create them for IC (free audience persona template)
- Top 3 Priorities for Internal Comms Professionals & How an Intranet Can Help
- Top 10 Comms Books That Will Help Nail your Internal Communications Strategy