Five Tips for Handling a Communications Crisis

A crisis in your business is the ultimate form of disruption. When something bad happens that has the potential to result in negative press coverage, it can impact your reputation, brand, sales, relationship with shareholders and profits.

This year many household brands have been caught in the eye of a media storm – Facebook, Oxfam, British Airways and KFC to name a few… Can you name the negative stories for each company?

It doesn’t matter how much you turn over or how big you are – no business is immune to a communications crisis.

You might think that because you’re an SME, you don’t need to worry. But it’s about scale. If you’re a regional business, a negative headline in a local or regional newspaper is just as damaging for you as a negative headline in a national newspaper for a national organisation.

With the 24-hour news cycle and the infinite power of social media, crisis management today is more important than it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

There are certain strategies and steps to take to limit the damage to your business in the event of a crisis. We’ve listed our top five tips in crisis management below:

Tip 1: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance

Before a crisis erupts, be proactive and anticipate it by writing a crisis communications plan tailored to your company. Some crises cannot be prevented, but there are ways of limiting the level of damage done.

Some industries are more prone to crises than others. If your business is in one of those, then the need to plan is much greater.

External communications should never exceed internal communications! What does that mean? It means in times of a crisis, make sure your team is informed and prepared thoroughly before you start communicating to stakeholders, customers and the press. Ensure your receptionist is just as a prepared for that out-of-the-blue journalist call as your managing director…

For many SMEs and sole traders, writing a crisis comms plan will always be at the bottom of their to-do list. Hiring an agency allows you to delegate that task, proving to be a good investment for your company.

Also, if you’re a small team, working with an agency in the heat of a crisis means you can continue to keep the day-to-day business ticking over while they work around the clock to protect your reputation in the meantime.  

What should be in your plan?

Your plan should be a guide, a hymn sheet, a manual of ‘what to do’ in the event of a communications crisis. The plan is for internal use only and ensures your team has a collaborative approach in the heat of the moment.

The plan should contain potential situations and a plan of how to deal with them. It should contain practical things such as: who is your media spokesperson, who is going to field correspondence from the press, who will write and issue press statements, who will monitor social media platforms and so forth.

Your team needs to be clear about who can comment and who crafts the message. If your managing director is conducting media interviews, who’s writing the Twitter feed? It’s even more critical during times of crises to stay on message (offline and online).

A crisis communication plan is even more important if your team is spread out across different locations.

Imagine you’re on holiday in a different time zone and there’s an issue developing back home which has the potential to damage your company. No crisis comms plan? Recipe for disaster…

Tip 2: Assess the situation

This is arguably the most important step when mitigating a crisis. Remember, just because you think something’s a crisis doesn’t mean it is. Know the difference between a crisis, which can damage your business in the long term, and a minor stumbling block in the road. Don’t draw attention to yourself unnecessarily. You need to be able to assess whether the situation has the potential to escalate or whether it will fade away.

Tip 3: Prepare to engage with the press

Different crises determine different strategies, but generally, ‘no comment’ is never a good strategy. Even if you don’t want to say anything, it’s always good to keep the communication channels open with journalists.

It’s also worth noting that when speaking to journalists, always assume the conversation is on the record.  

However, generally, don’t be afraid to engage with the press. Taking the initiative and issuing a press statement can put you on the front foot – just make sure you’re prepared! If you agree to make a comment or to do a broadcast interview, make sure you prepare – anticipate the worst-case scenario, prep your answers for the difficult questions, know your message and stay on it.

Make sure you know who will do the press engagement. In your crisis plan, nominate media spokespeople – two or three people who are confident in speaking to the media. And, it’s advisable that you invest in them by putting them through intensive media training.

Tip 4: Take Responsibility and Act

If your company has made an error or is in the wrong, make sure you take responsibility. And once you take responsibility, make sure people know what you’re going to do to rectify the situation.

Here’s an example: the Alton Towers crash in 2015. Three years later and ‘Alton Towers Crash’ is still in the top five Google searches for the company. That says a lot about what happened.

Two rides collided head on together and as a result several people were seriously injured. Alton Towers had no choice but to accept responsibility and apologise. They apologised, but also launched a full investigation as to what happened. Obviously in this case, there was no other option for the Alton Towers, but it was critical for them to be seen acting to ensure the same type of crash never happens again, for the survival of the company.

Tip 5: Have experts in your corner! Use an agency…

When the future of your business is at stake, you want to make sure you have experts in your corner fighting your battles. You wouldn’t fight a serious legal case without your legal team, so why would you try to handle a communications crisis without the help of those who specialise in this field?

Of course, we would say that wouldn’t we? But it’s true. We offer a 24-hour, seven days a week crisis communications service. Our team combined has almost 100 years in communications experience. Some of our team are former broadcast journalists, editors of newspapers and communication professionals who’ve had to deal with the fallout of front page headlines.

Our aim in a crisis is to advise you and mitigate the situation with the aim of protecting your reputation and brand credibility.

Can you put a price on your business? No. Working with a communications agency which offers crisis management is a long-term investment, not an expense. For all our clients, we pride ourselves in offering strategic communications advice whenever it’s needed.  

As well as offering this service to our clients, we also work with organisations that want help drafting a crisis comms plan and want their team trained in how to talk to the media in the event of a crisis. If you need our support, give us a call for a free consultation on 01522 528540.