Critical incident response advice inspired by Covid-19.
Crises come in many shapes and sometimes they come fast. You know how it is – one hungry shopper in Hubei tucks into a wild and endangered specie and all of a sudden there’s free childcare in Western Sydney.
When crises unfold communicatons professionals need to deliver clear, concise messaging. Sometimes you’ll need to save lives and economies, other times you just need to protect your reputation and business.
Even if your organisation pays no attention to communications, invest time and energy considering how you will cope with negative attention.
Negative publicity can quickly undo years of good work. Critical incident response (CIR) planning is as close to reputation insurance as you can get. Some damage control advice:
See it coming. When I ask clients to imagine a crisis most of the suggestions are bolts from the blue – fires, injuries, takeovers, viruses, resignations. Unexpected, unwelcome, unavoidable and undeserved situations.
Unexpected crises do happen but most of the crises with which I have dealt are not at all surprising to those in the know. Expectable crises occur when disgruntled staff, volunteers or clients are ignored; dodgy financial transactions are undisclosed and poor work practices are tolerated. These are slow burning crises awaiting a puff of wind to ignite.
Slow burning crises are confronting to consider as they are not blameless.
I once asked a group of 30 leaders – most of which head organisations that work with volunteers, children, public funding, dangerous activities – whether they could see the embers of a crisis glowing. None did. Perhaps they were being discreet but I did remark to them that it was highly unlikely that such a collection of organisations did not have something damaging en route to their front door. What’s that saying about stitches in time?
Hurry up! Australians were left in a vacuum thanks to a glacial communications response to the Covid-19 crisis. It was weeks before a gentle, animated, impotent TVC was released. Unforgiveable. In that time people were being infected, behaviours unchanged and the concerned population were feeling that they were on their own. (A huge campaigning error.)
Read the room. A crisis warrants a swift, serious response. Do not make the errors our insipid political leaders made during the first weeks of COVID-19 and downplay the crisis. There are times to agitate people into action and a business-as-usual approach threatens to placate the very people who need to act. Leaders who fail to match the mood of the moment lose the respect of potential supporters.
Evolve your messaging. Whether you are updating people on a situation or providing advice you must update and evolve your messages. Some crises – epidemics, droughts, unemployment – unfold over months. Two months into the COVID-19 debacle began in earnest we are still being told to wash our hands and sneeze politely. The time for these messages was mid-January.
Use your imagination. Do “lesser animals” such as pangolins have imaginations? I don’t know. But I can confirm that out leaders and their well-paid advisors lack even the most basic level of foresight. Only a agrarian socialist could not have predicted the utterly logical panic buying in light of an economic shutdown. Note – if you love pangolins sign this.
By the time leaders were shaming people into lightening up on the toilet paper it was too late. This was an obvious outcome and could have been lessened by education along the lines of: “Australia is a meat, seafood, fruit and vegetable exporter. We also make our own loo paper. If you buy normally, they’ll supply normally.” Restrictions from supermarkets wouldn’t have hurt either.
A far deadlier lack of imagination was the convenient belief that hundreds of thousands of daily arrivals to Australia would voluntarily self-isolate. Ignoring the failure of policy and Border Force, the lack of communications to arrivals was key to spreading the virus.
The origin of your crisis may have nothing to do with you. Crises may be inspired by a media investigation, community group or academic study. For example the greyhound industry – not a favourite of Hootville’s – was shaken to its foundations with the release of undercover reporting by Animals Australia which then worked with ABC-TV’s 4 Corners to create a national furore. Overnight the industry went from being the recipient of millions of taxpayer dollars to a national disgrace.
Animals create passion – if you are exposed to animal welfare issues – you may find yourself in the midst of a crisis. This applies equally to pony clubs and hamburger franchises. No animal cruelty to be concerned about? What else have you got to fear?
Gender and sexuality: we have never been more aware of these issues. How well would your organisation stand up to scrutiny of your gender diversity at participant, employee or board level? What would happen if one of your franchises, clubs or schools had to deal with a female customer / participant / student who wishes to change gender? What if a woman wants to join your female-only support group?
Social media: it is now fair game to hold entire organisations accountable to the social media rants of one staff member about issues that do not pertain to the mission of your organisation. Even if that rant was made in private time.
Related-party transactions: Many boards have directors with business dealings with the organisation that they serve. In many instances that’s entirely justified on many occasions it could cause you pain.
Child protection / physical abuse: the cone of silence has lifted and people rightfully have long memories. Are your policies and practices ready to stand scrutiny.
Faith-based and tax-free: religious nonprofits need to be able to justify their tax -free status. Particularly when they compete for business alongside private enterprises.
IR: paying staff half the mandated rate? Expect twice the crisis.
In short, crises are many and varied and given enough time, inevitable. They may be warranted, they may be not – that hardly matters.
Officially declare a crisis. When you identify a crisis it needs to be declared as such and all your VIPs alerted to the fact that the crisis plan is now in effect. Have a specific crisis plan and stick to it. Many aspects of your plan are covered in this blog post.
Correct the mistake ASAP. If you have made a mistake – admit it. Don’t lie, half apologise, stay silent or grumble. If media or a third party is in error correct it swiftly and without room for misinterpretation. See how to make an apology.
Have a single point of contact for media. Media and other enquiries might be made through any variety of channels. The dastardly media may well approach your staff or volunteers in the most unlikely of situations hoping to get a comment. Tell all staff and stakeholders to refer media inquiries to the anointed media person.
Have a single, trained spokesperson. This may not be the boss. It should be someone across the issues, with real authority who can communicate to the media effectively. Note that in Australia it is less common for organisations to have a designated media spokesperson and it will be counted against you if your spokesperson isn’t your leader.
We’ve seen the disarray that occurs when a gaggle of Chief Medical Officers and their deputies take to the the lectern. Disunity is death. Equally deadly is having a weak spokesperson.
Address just the key issues with specific, refined messages when speaking to stakeholders or media. This is not the time to address broader criticisms of your organisation. Do NOT do as Trump does and hog the stage for long, rambling daily briefings.
Use press conferences and door-stop interviews as ways to communicate your message. They give you maximum control. (That’s why they are used by corrupt cricketers and punch-happy footballers.) Press releases and written statements look defensive though it is likely you will use them in a crisis. Despite your natural reluctance to go public in any crisis it’s important to create the impression that you are happy to communicate.
If you are holding regular press conferences, give them a structure such as:
1: briefest of welcomes – cut to the chase;
2: update on developments since last press conference;
3: a theme or issue you wish to highlight today, perhaps backed up with a visual;
4: introduce any additional speakers;
5: a brief personal story / experience / reflection or expression of gratitude
6: Q&A. Always announce that you’re closing questions a few questions ahead of time to appear reasonable.
Have a remedy. It is vital for leaders and CEOs to demonstrate specific actions they are taking to make the crisis better.
Fundamentally unethical franchise 7-Eleven attempted to demonstrate their willingness to take action by appointing Prof Alan Fels to an independent committee to redress their systematic and long-term underpayment of workers.
It was the beginning of their remedy to deal with the crisis that was years in the making and entirely their own fault. Prof Fels is one of our most trusted citizens and his appointment showed that 7-Eleven was taking the matter seriously. This of course ended with the termination of his engagement.
A private Australian fundraising consultancy once contacted us on a Saturday afternoon to discuss a crisis that had been brewing for a long time. You guessed it – the underpayment of their employees.
Brett advised the CEO that it was vital to calculate the underpayments that would belatedly be made to staff. This, I instructed, would show both remorse and responsibility. Without being able to demonstrate a remedy it would be difficult to demonstrate remorse. Strangely the conversation ended shortly after this recommendation.
Make sure you can genuinely claim to have taken specific action before making your public apology. Talk to people, fire someone, call a meeting, send a cheque, call in the external consultants ASAP and you’re already three steps down the road to putting the crisis behind you.
Throw out the bad apple. Too often we see organisations defend the indefensible. Churches, unions, ethnic associations and big corporations regularly do this. The public will respect an organisation that is willing to make the hard decisions. Note – there have been no sackings from Border Force or NSW Health post-Ruby Princess.
Prioritise your key audiences such as staff, volunteers and donors – as they will follow the story more closely than strangers. Media isn’t the way to reach these people – ideally you’ll be able to talk to people face-to-face or on the phone though it is likely you’ll have to resort to your website or email.
When a crisis hits you need clear healthy communications channels to your key stakeholders. It’s too late to start building up a media list or an email database of your stakeholders. These need to be put in place long before the proverbial hits the fan.
Hootville Global HQ is based in Stonnington which has Victoria’s highest infection rate. Have I been told this from the City of Stonnington, my State or Federal MPs all of whom email, write and robocall on a regular basis? Nope. Do the signs in local parks make clear how much Stonningtonians should stay at home due to the alarming and relevant local stats? Nope. Do these people deserve my vote? Nope.
Media management. Media is an accelerant to any crisis. Here is some confusing advice: sometimes you can snuff out a crisis by delay, refusing to share information and keeping the crisis close to your chest. You may even seek legal action to keep things quiet. Sometimes this works, as it did for the Catholic Church for decades. However if your crisis eventually becomes public your delay compounds the sin in the eye of the public. So if you have any intention of going public with your crisis go public earlier rather than later
Don’t think that your past media experience will hold you in good stead. Some organisations can get accustomed to soft, supportive media. Crisis media is different. You’ll be speaking to different media and different journalists with different expectations and attitudes.
Have a non-perishable story in your bottom drawer. This is a story (obviously positive) that can be told at any time. Use it to deflect attention.
Finally – a crisis is an opportunity. Plenty of individuals and organisations have faced crises and lived to play another day. Bankruptcies, allegations of sexual assault, infidelity, salary cap breaches, mass resignations, exploding appliances, workplace deaths and politically incorrect gaffes have failed to derail the careers and corporate profits of many. How openly and effectively you deal with your crisis will have a huge impact as to how well you rebound.