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A guide to crisis communications

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Crisis communications

Plan for a crisis. Now!

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KARIAN BOX

A crisis could hit your organisation at any point, with far reaching effects, and that is what makes them so destructive. It’s not just what happens immediately after one, it’s the long term effect on your reputation, your staff morale and ultimately your bottom line. When we talk about dealing with a crisis we need to work with the whole picture. There is the obvious part – the media handling and how do you cope when there’s a series of negative stories about you in the press or a clamour of journalists at your door. But you need to think about what else it involves too. Can your managers handle the crisis? Who is supporting them and do they know how to manage their teams

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through a crisis situation? How are you going to deal with the fallout? Negative publicity goes hand-in-hand with low staff morale, affecting the very people you need to help you get through this difficult period. How do you know what they are thinking and how do you turn things around. Finally, what about re-building your reputation? What do you need to do build yourselves up again in the public’s eyes and how are you going to do this?


Crisis communications

Crisis? What crisis?

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KARIAN BOX

What are we talking about here? The word crisis often makes people think of things going wrong on an epic scale. In this economic climate, that is always going to be a possibility but size is no indicator of damage when it comes to your reputation so you need to watch out for the small things too. In the current climate, many organisations are looking at a raised level of fear amongst employees about job security. In the City, in the housing market and beyond we can see that companies are starting to lay off staff. With every merger, there are always redundancies and with discretionary budgets starting to get the chop, staff will be wondering if they are next. This fear and low morale can be very difficult for managers to deal with especially if they have not faced these situations before. And, of course, that has a trickle down effect. Until a few months ago Britain was still booming; the shock is still sinking in while we all wait to see the full effect on our economy. You need an advance plan for how you will deal with the worse case scenario.

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There are other things that you know could go wrong too. A scandal involving a senior member of staff or board member. A court case on the basis of discrimination - just look up discrimination cases on google and you will see pages of information about them and about practices that most companies hope they never had to talk about publicly. For example, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein had pages of bad publicity for weeks over claims about sexism in the city; terrorist attacks, natural disasters or something could go wrong with one of your products, a genuine mistake but again potentially disastrous results. There are of course some things that you can’t predict – some will be big, some will be the everyday dramas that any organisation has to deal with. Small or everyday does not mean insignificant. If you treat every crisis as important you could avoid that little one spiralling into an out of control monster.


Crisis communications

What do I do?

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KARIAN BOX

Four top line things organisations can do to prepare for a crisis 1. Get your story straight (have a narrative that sets context) The first thing you need to do is work out your top line messages. Get the right team of people together – the spokesperson, the decision makers, the PR expert who knows how the media will react, the external relations expert who knows how stakeholders and the public will react, the HR or internal communications person, the issues expert and your corporate lawyer. The team varies from one organization to another but these are some of your key people and each has a role to play. The 3 things you need to consider before constructing your message: Get the facts – the real facts. Also do some research around the area, previous reports, media coverage etc, who said what. Get a legal opinion but don’t base your external message based on the legalities. Legally you may be completely right, but you need to think about the wider consequences for your reputation including judging the mood of the public and what seems to be common sense on the issue. Work out who is on your side and who is not and what will they expect or want out of this situation. Then build a message. Define what could happen, why and what you are going to do about it. You need a maximum of 3 top line messages. Your PR and external relations are your key people here as they will know how the outside world will react to it. Write the messages in plain English without any jargon. They have to convey what you want to say quickly and easily to the general public.

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From this create materials to support what you are saying with more detail; for example, Q&A documents, background briefings and any other research documentation. Agree your target audiences, both internal and external. Decide who should contact who and how, what they should say to them and through what medium. Ensure there is a mechanism for feedback. When a potential crisis does break – agree your communications strategy, again making it clear who is doing what and making sure you have regular catch-up sessions to see how things are going. If you need to, adapt your statements if a new issue occurs, making sure each time that all internal and external stakeholders are kept informed. If the issue is going to run on, then allocate someone to monitor the situation overnight or over a weekend, making clear who they should feed any information to and who makes the decisions. Also make sure that there is always at least one person available to talk to the media and stakeholders at all times, whether inside working hours or out.


Crisis communications

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KARIAN BOX

All this will mean a potentially very frantic period with, lots of stress and back-to-back meetings. How can you make it as painless as possible?

2. Plan, plan and plan again Yes, planning is the key. Work out your areas of risk, where are you most vulnerable and what is most likely to go wrong. Part of your risk management strategy should be communications and keeping the organisation together. Work out what you would do as far as you possibly can and have that ready to use. Think about your external and internal stakeholders and work out who is going to be on your side, people you could trust to speak out in your defence either publicly or privately. Nurture your relations with these people as there is nothing worse then being in a middle of a crisis with no-one else on your side.

People are more likely to want to support you if previously you consulted them, involved them in your thinking and they feel some kind of stake in what you are doing. Do this now – they can make the difference between you surviving a crisis or going down. At the same time, work out who your fiercest critics are likely to be and what they are likely to say. If you can then it is worth meeting with them to try and neutralise any bad feeling. If you don’t think they’ll change their minds then meet with them anyway – at least you have made the effort and it might stop some of them from being prepared to attack you publicly.  evelop clear lines of responsibility D for specific actions A place to meet and make decisions  imings for key decision making T meetings  ho gets what information and in W what order  ack-up Plan (rarely in successful B crisis control are Plan B’s not thought of or invoked)

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Crisis communications

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KARIAN BOX

3. Get that black book ready One of the most incredible things to watch is the sheer amount of physical and mental energy that can be wasted in the first few hours of a crisis. Lots of meetings are called, sometimes randomly. Everyone has a different reaction to a crisis ranging from complete panic to shock to relishing the challenge. There is often a period where people are not sure what is going on, who needs to be involved and real fear about whether things are under control. You can avoid this by thinking this through in advance. The most important thing – work out who is on your crisis team together and make it clear to everyone who is on that team and why. You need to agree this in advance and write it down, then stick to it. Remember, lots of people will want to be involved so get the arguments about who is should be over with in advance rather then wasting your time during the first few hours of a crisis. Establish a clear chain of command and decision-making and write that down too. Make sure that people know what it is. Just that small amount of clarity can avoid wasteful duplication and put people’s minds at rest.

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Have a plan for internal communications knowing you will need to explain: 1. What has happened – facts 2. W  hat the organisation is going to do about it 3. W  ho is being involved in decision making and any opportunities for staff to contribute via managers 4. W  ho your key spokespeople are and making it clear that no-one else is authorised to speak to the media or externally 5. W  ho they can talk to if they are concerned or worried for themselves 6. W  hat other communications they can expect and when Get a list of contact details ready and available for circulation in advance. That means home and mobile numbers, and emails as well as work ones. Too often precious time is wasted hunting these details once the crisis has hit. Or worse, it becomes impossible to contact the right people because you don’t know the numbers. Don’t assume the crisis will hit in working hours or during the week. These details need to be available and accessible at home so the circulation can be done as soon as possible. Make sure that more then one person has the list and that more than one person has responsibility for circulating them and has all the all the information they need at home and at work to do it quickly. It all sounds obvious, but it is surprising how many times this process has to start from scratch once the crisis has started.


Crisis communications

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KARIAN BOX

4. Prepare and coach the face and voice of the organisation Coaching your managers and leaders is one very effective way to ensure they are ready to deal with anything that is thrown at them. It is the crucial step that strengthens your own infrastructure to be able to withstand a crisis and allow managers to get on with their jobs in difficult times. If your managers are thinking clearly and calmly, having sorted out all the little niggles in the team that come with being a senior manager and have their attention focused on the job in hand, then surely that benefits the organisation. Our experience shows that given a period of change or crisis, the amount of actual work being done can drop dramatically as each individual and/or team starts to focus inwardly and worry about their future. To avoid this, an organisation needs to prepare people for different eventualities and make sure that managers are leading the way forward rather than, as sometimes happens, leading the charge towards doom and gloom or worse, stop leading altogether.

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Through coaching, managers will be able to resolve issues thereby gaining the respect and trust of their teams as good managers. Coaching can help them clarify in their own minds what they are trying to achieve in their roles and the best ways for them to work, again making them a better manager. It can help them to relate better to their own manager or the CEO, or Board so they understand what is required of them in their role and can communicate it effectively. And of course coaching can be an effective outlet for frustrations which a good coach will be able to translate into outcomes and action.


Crisis communications

Essential or not essential?

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Ironically, many organisations start to cut back on budgets for leadership development and coaching when things are starting to look like they may be a bit rocky in the future – just the time when they need coaching the most. At the end of the day your organisation needs to have the best people, working at their maximum capabilities especially when things are rough. At its best, coaching is not just about a good organisation helping to develop its leaders for the future, it is also about an organisation making sure its staff are doing their job as well as they can with the organisation’s needs being fully met. If you can offer leadership coaching in the good times, then great - and hopefully you will be able to reap the rewards if things are not so good later. But at the very least, make sure it is available when the good times are starting to look a bit fragile. This is a commercial decision and about survival. A great coach will understand the pressures you are under, will learn about the organisation and some of its history and will tailor their programme to meet the organisation’s needs. As well as being a form of support for the individual, they will equally be a support to the organisation. Ideally they will have been in the thick of things themselves in the past, as nothing beats the personal experience of having been a senior manager or to have gone through change themselves. They will not give you all the answers but work with you to draw them out. They may give advice and suggestions and guidance based on their experience, but it remains that – suggestions. They will have enough personal authority to ‘give it

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to you straight’, to disagree with you or challenge you when they think it is needed but enough empathy to understand the situation from your and other’s points of view. They will not be judgemental - but they may form opinions which they will not be afraid to voice. This can be particularly helpful in a time of change as one reaction to a crisis can be to bury your head in the sand and stop listening. The coach needs to enable you to keep an open mind. In an ideal world, you would not need coaches as every manager would be a good manager, would not allow personal feelings about team members to affect their work and would not worry about their personal circumstances but always put the organisation first. They would always know instinctively what the right solution is and would be able to articulate it eloquently. Unfortunately we do not live in that perfect world. Human frailty, lack of experience, personal circumstances all arrive with us into the workplace. Most of the time, we can get away with it and the organisation may be prepared to turn a blind eye. But when we are talking about the future of an organisation and its reputation then avoiding the issues can mean we end up paying a heavy price.


Crisis communications

Get ready, go!

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KARIAN BOX

In brief, you need to plan for a potential crisis. 1 Work out what might go wrong and what you would do in each scenario. 2 Get your story and messages straight. 3 Build a plan of who does what, when, where. 4 Make sure you know who you need to speak to when a crisis hits and where you can reach them. 5 Get the face and voice of your organisation ready and coach them until they are ready.

The Karian and Box thinkbox on crisis communication is authored by Faz Hakim

Faz Hakim Faz Hakim is an associate director at Karian and Box and has been a consultant for the last 2 years working with individuals and organisations to provide leadership coaching and mentoring as well as advice on diversity and political issues. Her previous roles have included working as an advisor to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in 10 Downing Street and an advisor to Trevor Phillips the Chair of the Equaliities and Human Rights Commission. She was a Director at the CRE for 5 years and has dealt with many crisis situations during her career. She was Vice-President for Media Relations at JP Morgan and has managed the strategy and communications for two major organisational mergers and a range of organisational changes. If you’d like more advice or guidance on how to make sure your organisation is in shape crisis, get in touch with Faz Hakim at faz@karianandbox.com or call 01904 654454

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A guide to crisis communications  

A crisis could hit your organisation at any point, with far reaching effects, and that is what makes them so destructive. It’s not just what...

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