By Mimi Kalinda

A public crisis has a negative impact on organisations, affecting reputation, business relationships and bottom-line factors (including sales, share prices and profit results). Any public relations firm or good internal reputation manager taking care of a corporate, non-profit or even personal brand should be able to identify issues that have the potential to become a crisis, and handle them before they reach that stage. Unfortunately, most people underestimate or even completely ignore the risks that such a situation poses.

Organisations need to recognise the very real danger that a widespread, rapidly escalating crisis presents to business reputation and market share. The threat of such an impact could be vastly reduced, or even prevented, with an effective crisis management system. Such a process includes scenario planning, having communication and public relations structures in place to deal with a crisis should it occur and plans to strategically handle a post crisis environment. These three requirements are discussed in more detail below:

  1. Proactive Crisis Scenario Planning

While you cannot anticipate or plan for every crisis situation that could possibly occur, you can most certainly project likely potential crises of varying magnitude relating to your particular business or field. A vital component of effective scenario planning is having a crisis communication framework in place. This includes communication content drafts, such as prepared statements related to potential crisis situations that can then be adjusted to suit the actual circumstance. It also includes procedures such as identifying the different spokespeople that will deal with each type of issue. Factors such as context and conflict of interest need to be taken into consideration during times of crisis.

It is also imperative that elected spokespeople are trained in advance to prevent delays and public fumbles in the midst of a crisis. Understanding and planning on how to speak to the media (knowing that sometimes they will push you up against the wall in their attempts to get answers etc.) will reduce the risks of your spokespeople making things worse in a crisis situation by reacting in the wrong manner.

Importantly, always remember that communication does not take place within a vacuum – it has an effect on all stakeholders and the business’s image as a whole. From a practical operational point of view, include internal stakeholders in your scenario planning so that you have something truthful and realistic to say as part of crisis communication.

  1. Active Crisis Management

The impact of a crisis is largely affected on how it is handled when it breaks. Generally, a crisis arc lives for about 48 hours. Within this critical period, there is usually a tipping point where (due to poor or non-existent crisis management), a brand’s reputation risks being sullied so severely that it is very hard – or even nearly impossible – to effectively recover. The steps taken within the first 24 hours after a crisis occurs are crucial in terms of the pace you set, the way you communicate to the public and the measures you take.

Our research and experience have found that a certain vulnerability, not necessarily having all the answers but making an effort, being apologetic, being humble and sticking to the facts are criteria that contribute to your communication messages being more favourably received. Exude humility and humanity – people are willing to forgive almost anything as long as they can see their humanity reflected in you. Empathise with people who have suffered a loss of any kind, reassure (within reason) that the future will be better, tell people what they want to hear without resorting to false statements. Again, remain truthful at all times so that people recognise that you respect them enough not to lie to them or insult their intelligence. However, the truths and factual content that you do share should be communicated in a way that has the most positive impact – not just on your own story, but on the affected stakeholder groups at large. This is how you, your organisation and its stakeholders will get through a crisis.

  1. Post-crisis Recovery

A crisis is not going to end the day after it starts, and may continue indefinitely depending on the magnitude, how it is managed and other case-by-case factors. Even once you are no longer making headlines and the crisis is no longer at its peak, it does not mean it is over. Instead begins the task of trying to regain grounds lost (from a reputation and business standpoint) for a long time thereafter. In fact, this period may even be more difficult to navigate than the actual peak crisis period as high levels of effort and strategy need to be invested into gaining lost ground and reputation equity. It’s all about lessons learnt – going back to the drawing board, comparing where you were before the crisis to where you are post crisis. From an operational and reputational standpoint, look at how these learnt lessons can be applied for improvement. You also need to formulate a timeframe for crisis related conversations to continue – you can’t stop communicating immediately after the crisis, but you also don’t want to keep talking too long and unnecessarily prolong attention being focused on the crisis.

When it comes to the actual content of post-crisis communication, you need to be quite strategic in terms of the type and pace of messaging. Initial content could include apologising (where necessary), acknowledging things that were done wrong by the brand, and – very importantly – steps taken to decrease the risk or prevent the occurrence of such a situation in the future. Thereafter, you can slowly and carefully (so as not to be seen as insensitive or dismissive of the crisis) start easing into stories and content that showcases the brand in a positive light. In this way, you are saying, “yes, we know we made mistakes, but look at all the other good we are doing”. This will help re-engage the audience and market favourably with your brand and what you have to offer.

It’s important to not forget your internal audiences. Your staff, board and other stakeholders have a vested interest in what’s going on, and also have family, friends and networks that they talk to and discuss events pertaining to your organisation. Be sure not to neglect internal communication as part of crisis planning and management processes, especially as these internal stakeholders are likely to be your brand’s fiercest advocates in your time of need.

The approach you take for all communication should, in their own way, form part of crisis management and drive positive sentiment. The key is to conduct yourself in such a manner that your character will be your saving grace when things go wrong. Therefore, living up to your values, staying true to your brand and having a sense of humanity should form part of your overall general business practices.

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