Early stages of a crisis
This paper makes several assumptions based upon other papers in this series, they are:
- That you have already established a crisis management team
- That your team has received regular training based upon a range of crisis scenarios
- That you have built up a portfolio of background briefs
- That you have, as a minimum, a staff handbook and database of stakeholder contact details.
In theory there are a number of models for the crisis management phases, the most popular of which is:
Phase 1 Detection
Phase 2 Prevention
Phase 3 Damage containment
Phase 4 Recovery
Phase 5 Learning
If you are in the process of putting in safeguards against a crisis then it is worth planning through these phases; there are any number of books on the subject. Many books concentrate, quite properly, on preventing a crisis. The aim of this paper is to help you in the most practical of ways once a crisis is under way.
Once you are notified of a crisis it is down to you to make sure that you get as much information as possible before making any decisions. That information needs to be gathered quickly and in a form that allows for easy interpretation of the situation.
- Assess the crisis
- What is the nature of the situation? There are two types of crisis, manmade and natural – which is it?(1)
- How bad is the situation?
- Is there any chance that it might get worse?(2)
- Is the crisis public knowledge yet?(3)
- Are there any other parties involved?
- Have you got any allies or third parties who might support you through the crisis?(4)
- Who is supplying you with information and how regularly(5)
- Is the information accurate?(6)
Once you have gathered the first round of information then you should start analysing what you have and start to make some decisions.
First stage decisions
Initially, you will need to decide the scale of the crisis, the time lapse since the start of the crisis and the nature of the crisis. Based upon these three critical criteria you can then decide:
- Which members of the crisis management team do you need to involve – all or a selected few (this will depend upon the nature and scale of the crisis)?
- Who will act as spokesperson for the company?
- How quickly do you need to issue a statement?
- When do you need to involve lawyers?
- What next actions do you need to take?
- Do you need to escalate the crisis management activity or not?
- Also consider if you need to bring in any outside experts such as communications/PR specialists.
There has been some interesting research done as to who should act as company spokesperson depending upon the nature of the crisis. Below is some broad advice,(7) although each case has to be decided upon its merits.
A CEO might be expected to step up to the role when:
- Accidents (technical or human error) happen which involve injuries or loss of life
- When the organisation does something wrong
- Organisational misdeeds with injuries
- Where there has been workplace violence
- Where there has been illegal corporate behaviour
- Big incidents involving large scale damage.
Someone else might be expected to act as spokesperson when:
- The workforce strikes
- When rumours are being spread about the organisation
- Where there is a product recall (unless there has been injury)
- Product tampering (the CEO may choose to do so to protect organisational reputation)
- Hostile takeovers/mergers/failed mergers (in the case of the Cadbury v Kraft takeover it is the Chairman who is seen as a figurehead)
- When it involves the CEO!
Second stage decisions
Now that you know more about the crisis, its nature and whether it is going to escalate or not, you will have assembled the necessary team to handle the scale of the crisis.
You should make sure that you have a clear strategy in place. In particular think about the crisis from the point of view of your audiences. What will they be thinking? What information will they want and how will it look to them?
From here you should decide who you need to inform and the nature of the statement you will make.
- Employees should be an early and important consideration
- Investors and owners are another early priority
- If it is a very public crisis, then the media should be informed. However, there is a strong possibility that if it is in the public domain that they will have been contacting you already for further information. Never ever try and divide and rule the media, treat them equally and do not give exclusives in a crisis situation(8)
- Any other key stakeholders will depend upon the nature of the crisis. If you have done your pre-crisis planning well, then you will have a list of all your stakeholders by groupings on a database to allow for quick and easy dissemination of information
- If it is a major crisis with serious potential repercussions, then you may decide to set up a separate website to answer questions and give information to interested parties.
What they will want to know
The media especially will want as much information as possible. Below are some of the questions you should be ready and able to answer:
- What happened and when?
- Is it ongoing or is it over? When will it be over?
- Why did it happen?
- Is anybody responsible and if so what action is being taken?
- What is the extent of the damage?(9)
- Were there any deaths, injuries or inconvenience incurred; especially to the public?
- What are you doing about it?
- Did you receive any warning signs and if so what did you do to try and prevent it from happening?
- Are there any cases where this has happened before (not necessarily in your organisation but elsewhere in the industry)?
Most important in any crisis is to give as much information as possible. It is foolish to assume that damaging or controversial information won’t be leaked, therefore holding back may do you more harm in due course.
If it is clear that there has been negligence on your part or on your behalf then you will need to consult lawyers; but again, eventually you will have to face up to your responsibilities and it is better to do it early rather than late. Make a virtue of being honest and contrite.
If your organisation is in the wrong or where there has been loss of life or substantial inconvenience or disruption then it is critical that you apologise, put a human face to the problem and express concern, regret and understanding of the situation of the victims.
If it is an ongoing situation then you must indicate what you are doing to resolve the situation and then inform your audiences when they can expect updates.
In a crisis if you make a promise to do something then you must deliver or face a loss of trust and ultimately reputation.
When making a statement try to avoid generalisation, instead be as specific as you can i.e. don’t say ‘we have high safety standards’ instead say ‘The plant is examined three times a day and the last time was . . .’
Don’t forget to tell them where they can get further information about your organisation.
Third stage decisions
Now that you have gathered the information, decided your strategy and identified audiences you are in a position to make a statement.
- Decide which communications mediums you will use. Almost certainly a press conference for a big crisis, possibly an email or intranet statement to employees, an internet ‘dark site’(10) on which you can publish all information for the public to access
- Decide on the timing of the statement. It may have been necessary to issue an early holding statement, but this should be followed by a more substantive statement. Press conferences are best done between 0900 and 1100 so that the media can file their reports. Speed in a major crisis will be more important than timing because you want to get in the first word and don’t want to be in a position where you are reacting to media statements rather than taking the initiative
- Always make sure that, as much as possible you inform all stakeholders at the same time to avoid one group getting information via another
- Determine the best place for the statement to be published. It could be online, it might be in a press conference in your company or a neutral place. If it is a big event based around a site, then it might be on or near the site because that is where the media will have gathered
- Make sure that the statement is short, simple and easy to follow. This is not the time to use big words, acronyms and talk down to people. Keep it clear and factual; plenty of other people will be doing the speculating for you. Also avoid talking up the company, now is not the time; but do make sure that the media have all the background briefs you can provide so that they fill their pages with facts not speculation.
Typical media encounters
- Doorstepping(11) – you can’t prevent it from happening. Talk to them, don’t make a mad dash for the car because that will look guilty. Instead, play for time, invite them in and agree to do an interview shortly. Alternatively, if a statement is being prepared, then say that a statement will be issued shortly and tell them when and where
- One to one – probably on the site of the crisis
- In the studio – if so check out carefully the nature of the interview and who else will be present(12)
- Down a telephone line – remember to speak slowly and clearly so that the audience can hear you over the muffle of the telephone line
- Press conference(13)
Dos and Don’ts with the media
- Don’t do an interview until you have a statement to make and you have sufficient facts to give them a story
- Practice making your statement before you go in front of the media and brainstorm ‘lines to take’ on any anticipated questions
- Make sure your delivery is slower and lower than normal. You are dealing with a grave situation so gravitas without appearing morose is what is required
- Avoid humour – now is not the time to make light of a situation
- Don’t discuss hypothetical situations or speculation, only the facts
- Don’t be timid, be confident and in control
- If a question is ambiguous or misleading then ask for clarification or rephrase the question before you answer it i.e. “If what you are asking is . . . then . . . “
- Give as much information as you possibly can. It is better they get the facts from you rather than a half truth or rumour from someone else
- Don’t be evasive. Either you know the answer or you don’t know the answer. If the facts aren’t clear yet, then don’t speculate, instead say “We are still investigating that point and as soon as we know more I will let you know”
- Never attempt to assign blame and equally avoid trying to be the hero – just keep to the facts and do it with a personal touch rather than as the ‘company spokesperson’
- Don’t ever do ‘no comment’ during a crisis situation – it suggests guilt. Ideally always avoid saying ‘no comment’ at all times then you don’t get into the bad habit
- Never get angry. Be assertive yes, but never get abusive or attempt to prevent a journalist from doing their job. Also avoid walking away. All these things look really guilty at any time let along a crisis situation
- Know when to disengage. In fact practising disengagement as part of your training. “Thank you for your time. As soon as I have more information we will make arrangements to give you an update, but for now that is all the information I can give”.
Fourth stage decisions
Once you have gone through the early stages of a crisis and issued your first statement, now it is time to regroup and assess the results to date.
- Monitor the media – have you done the job properly or is speculation still at the forefront
- Monitor the web, especially public reaction in chat rooms etc
- Monitor other stakeholder reactions, especially employee reactions and investors.
In ‘Late stages of a crisis & recovery’ we take the discussion to the next stages in a crisis.
There is a big difference between knowing the theory and making it happen. For help in implementing your communications practices email us now.
(1) The nature of the crisis may help you to determine the line you take with the media
(2) A crisis may be one incident with little chance of further damage, in which case your reaction will be different to one where the situation is ongoing and may change. For example, the resignation of your CEO is a one off situation and can be handled. However, if you are aware of a deeper problem within the Executive team then you may have to consider whether other resignations are about to follow
(3) Don’t assume that because it isn’t public knowledge that you have the luxury of time on your hands. Later when the crisis goes public you may be criticised if you didn’t act quickly and decisively
(4) i.e. Trade Associations
(5) This will help you to establish stronger communications lines and anticipate how often you can give updates
(6) Try not to rely on one source and where possible verify details by getting information from multiple sources. If you have any doubt about the accuracy of the information then you should be very circumspect about how you use it
(7) For a more complete answer see ‘Crisis leadership: when should the CEO step up?’ Lucero, Kwang & Pang, Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Volume 14, Number 3, 2009, pp 234-248
(8) If you wish to give access to a site but you cannot allow all the media in for safety reasons, then you could seek a pooling arrangement with them. This is where you allow in one camera crew, one photographer and one journalist into the site provided they share the information with those left behind. We have used this technique successfully and provided they all agree this is usually well received and honoured
(9) Don’t just assume physical damage. This could also include reputational damage, damage to sales, mental effects etc
(11) This is where they catch you coming out of a private building such as your home or office and start asking you questions as you walk along the street