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Too Little, Too Late, Too Lame

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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:

crisis managment consultants melbourne
What does the future hold? We predict disaster.

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.)

We didn’t need to be calmed. We needed to be slapped to attention. Weeks were lost.

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.

Too little, too lame, too late.

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.

It’s only natural – and occured around the globe.

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.

crisis management advice
From the track to the dock.

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 crisis
Late night racist ramblings anybody?

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.

media trainer Brett de Hoedt
You need someone comfortable in the spotlight.

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.

damage control advice
Pro-tip: don’t cross this man.

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.

The Queensland ex-cop hard man who failed to stop a Princess.

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.

The virus is spreading.

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.

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How to make an apology

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How to make an apology

making an great apology

Listen to this man.

Elton John said it best – sorry seems to be the hardest word. Maybe that’s why so many CEOs and leaders fail to deliver an apology that makes the grade when the time comes to admit that they or their organisation have done something wrong.

Here’s how your CEO can make an apology that leads to forgiveness:

Faster, faster: decide whether you need to apologise as soon as possible. If an apology is deemed necessary don’t waste any time delivering it as apology delayed is considered an apology denied.

advice for crisis management

It’s leadership time.

Take us to your leader: an apology must be delivered by the person in charge. Of course this means that leaders and CEOs may have to apologise for behaviour over which they realistically had no control. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. An apology delivered by a genuine leader of an organisation adds authenticity – and authenticity is key.

Face-to-face is best: a written statement only goes so far to convey regret. When possible, have your leader or CEO apologise on camera, on microphone and face-to-face. That said, use every channel you have available

Content: keep your apology simple and direct. Ensure that you specifically say that you apologise, that you are sorry and that you regret. Use those words. Name specific audiences or organisations to which you apologise. Don’t obfuscate or meander – keep it short, sincere and sweet.

Similarly the CEO or leader making the apology should use the word “I” rather than “we” even though using “I” may seem inappropriate when speaking on behalf of a company. However “I” more effectively implies to the listener that the person making the apology genuinely takes responsibility

how to make an apology

No asterisks. No get out clauses.

No conditions apply: we all see attractive offers from retailers offering us a bargain accompanied with an asterisk indicating that conditions apply. Our hearts sink. Similarly your apology must be wholehearted and without condition. Resist the temptation to explain mitigating circumstances as it dilutes your apology.

Don’t do what former UK Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg does in this awkward video that attempted to counter the massive criticism of his policy backflips. He opens up by commenting that many people extend compliments to him as he travels around the country. It’s a lily- livered effort. No wonder it was parodied so well.

how to apologise

Notes are fine. Scripts are not.

Script? Do you need a script when you are fighting with your beloved? Of course not. The words pour out of your mouth because you’re speaking – at least at that moment – from the heart. Similarly the CEO or leader making his apology should be able to make that apology with minimal reference to notes or script. Reading out an apology word-for-word from a piece of paper makes the apologist look weak. That’s the sort of thing people do on advice from their lawyers.

Video? A long time ago a short-lived Governor General Peter Hollingworth issued an apology in a series of pre-recorded video grabs to be distributed to television news services. This was on the advice of a blue-chip public affairs consultant. It was stupid advice. The raw video clips were leaked and made him look calculating and insincere – after all who needs a script and rehearsals if they’re making a sincere apology?

delivering an apology

Many emotions! All of them fake.

Emotions: ideally your CEO’s apology will not look robotic. However don’t let your leader blubber her way through the episode. Cynical audiences will interpret this as the CEO being self-centred, self-pitying and “all about herself”.

Rinse & Repeat: don’t think that an apology is a one-off. Repeat your apology to different audiences via different channels ad nauseam until people are sick of hearing it. By this time your CEO will certainly be sick of saying it. Now read our blog on crisis management.

Witty post-script care of Sandra Wilson, Hepatitis Australia: 

Dear Brett

Your newsletter always contains remarkable common sense and we here at Hepatitis Australia really appreciate receiving them.

I hope you’ll forgive me for telling you that an apologist is not a person who apologises. An apologist is ‘someone who defends someone by argument’. C.S. Lewis, who wrote ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was an apologist for God.

I think there is a real need to invent a word for someone who apologises as I can’t seem to find one. We shall have to think about this. Something witty such as the word that was invented for a late (usually brilliant) reply to criticism – a ‘retortalate’ and for people who frequent coffee shops – the lateratti. Maybe the word should be ‘sorrierer’ ? Oh definitely not! Perhaps a ‘pardonist’ – no…

Still thinking and with kindest regards

Sandra Wilson, Business Support & Information Officer, Hepatitis Australia

public speaking workshops

Humbled. Corrected. Resilient.

Sandra – I stand corrected.


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