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  • Scot Devine

Why it’s good to work on your crisis comms strategy before you need it

Losing a billion pounds overnight is easier than you think

It starts like any other day. You wake up, shake out a bowl of whatever cereal appeals to you, and get ready to rock the day ahead. Coffee in hand, you have a quick scroll through Insta before another day of smashing your company’s comms out the park. Same routine, like a thousand times before, just another day. Then it happens: all hell breaks loose.

Your company’s stock plummets £1.07bn because someone mishandles a passenger ejection, as happened when Delta Airline’s fumbled its crisis communications following the incident. Or your fitness empire faces collapse after someone leaks your CEO’s racist comments - from a supposedly closed meeting - to Buzzfeed. Or your products are erroneously taken off every shelf in the country following a competitor’s deadly malfunction because your message isn’t clear. Of course, you might not be facing one of those world-changing emergencies, it might seem smaller. Perhaps it’s just a traffic jam, caused by your new limited edition whisky launch, that has upset the locals. But in almost all cases, regardless of whether it's triggered by a deep-seated toxic culture or an offhand quip, a long-building groundswell or a minor failure, bad news spreads at the speed of the internet. Only one of these real life nightmare scenarios had an appropriate crisis communications plan in place. And that company not only stabilized quickly but also rebounded fast and grew as a result of its preparation. We’ll look at it shortly. But first, back to your nightmare.

Doorstep challenge

Now your CEO is calling. And your CFO. And your CMO. Hostile news crews from Sky and the Sun have turned up unannounced at their homes and offices, to ‘doorstep’ them and demand answers and solutions. Instead of kissing their other half goodbye, their lips are forced against intrusive microphones and glaring news cameras. Images from those directors’ social media feeds appear on news sites, garishly parading the CMO’s ‘trendy house’ (a shoebox in Balham), the CMO’s ‘palatial gardens’ (a modest enough patch where the kids can kick a ball), or the CFO’s 'decadent party lifestyle’ (an industry awards dinner where his charity work was honoured). Caricature them as selfish fat cats first, ask questions later. The executive team, board and - let’s face it - what feels like the rest of the world looks to you for answers. Chop, chop!

So you quickly stop your Insta scroll and pick your jaw up from the floor, then do one of two things: hit the panic button or calmly enact your pre-prepared crisis communications strategy. The fact that the crisis is already in full swing suggests the former. No offense.

Please undo this zombie apocalypse

Communications are absolutely vital in an emergency. As trust in your brand begins to crumble, you can help. You can offer clarity and authority quickly, and drag the company from negativity to a normal, stable footing as seamlessly as possible.

In a situation this volatile without any preparation, stabilising the situation can be truly difficult. There is such a high volume of tasks to perform, under intense scrutiny, with little to no margin of error. You have to get it right, fast. Adapting an existing plan will make your already impossible situation much easier. Otherwise it’s a Sisyphean task. Without a plan, you’re building a life-raft after it has started sailing. But you haven’t even got the wood yet. And here comes another huge wave. Whoosh!

Ready or not, immediately you drop everything and go into crisis communications triage. You de-prioritise everything else - yes, even Instagram (Khloe Kardashian will have to wait) - and focus on: assessing the carnage using agreed criteria (is it even a crisis?); convening your crisis response team (reps from legal, HR, finance, etc); prioritising your crisis response sequence; ensuring you have clear access to sign-off; sourcing/identifying influencers; briefing your spokespeople; issuing your statement(s) and all the other bits and bobs you apply to stop the crisis spreading like wildfire and doing further damage, including rolling out your crisis SEO and SEM strategy on News and Search. And then, finally when the lifeboat is stable and in calm waters, picking up the pieces and putting the brand’s reputation back together.

Perform better under pressure with a pre-prepared crisis communications plan

The ‘inverted U’ theory used in sporting competition is in play: performance improves as arousal levels increase but worsens as the stimulation goes beyond the threshold, causing overwhelm and panic. In athletics, this can mean losing a race; in comms, a panicked response, like Delta Airlines’ one, can wipe £100m off the company’s value in the time it takes you to hustle together some kind of crisis team on the fly. Far better to reduce the stimulation burden by having a ready-made plan to implement.

Regardless of your sector, exercise a sort of productive paranoia. Have a hypervigilant approach, anticipating any threats. At ArrowEye Communications, we recommend that you channel this fear and worry into decisive, positive action. Prepare, develop a crisis communication plan, and practice it - stress test it - regularly. Approach it like a real emergency, not a rehearsal, to ensure its efficacy. This is essentially a communications equivalent of an evacuation plan and fire drill, but applied to a mind boggling variety of possible corporate issues. And it works.

Out of chaos, stability and opportunity

Out of the crises mentioned earlier - Delta Airlines, Reckitt Benckiser, CrossFit and The Macallan - really only one was ready. While airline brands are arguably the world's most crisis-prepared brands, Delta wasn’t set up for this particular type of issue, so fumbled badly.

The prepared brand in fact was a (must remain nameless) competitor of Reckitt Benckiser. It had an online alert set up to track sentiment. That system triggered an automatic alert, sent instantly by text and email, when online sentiment passed a negative threshold, putting the pre-agreed crisis team (from different departments) into action and implementing the crisis plan, with sign-off lines cleared and ready to act. Executives were made available to talk pre-agreed messages and statements, which they had rehearsed in mock interviews every quarter as part of their crisis-readiness routine. Messages had been quickly adapted from a ‘product toxicity issues’ crisis toolkit. Using their online alert tool, the comms team quickly identified influencers instrumental in spreading the negative news and invited them to a facility tour and behind the scenes of the manufacture and safety checks and convinced of the product’s safety. This spared the brand the knock-on effects of the crisis, it returned to the shelves and indeed gained 58% more market share than its pre-crisis share. The crisis communication plan allowed it to move swiftly and confidently to neutralise negative sentiment and rebuild trust in the brand. Preparation didn’t just stabilise the company’s fortunes, it dramatically improved them.

Preparation: the price worth paying

Such preparation comes at a price. It’s an investment of time from almost every department in a company, and can be a burden for busy executives who might otherwise prefer to avoid another mock interview in favour of profit creation. Of course, you’re reinforcing the roof whilst the sun shines, and long may the sun shine! But the strongest companies are hyper-vigilant ones that prepare for disruption of all kinds, not just a crisis, and have plans in place to enable the corporate to not only survive the chaos, but to thrive.

Ready for anything

No matter how much you brainstorm, you can’t anticipate every crisis. But changing your company culture to one that is crisis-ready allows you far more room to maneouver when an unanticipated issue hits. Additionally, the hyper vigilance it teaches helps the company be more limber and ready to adapt an existing crisis communication plan to an emerging problem. Compared to being unprepared, that adaptability will help you to remain unflappable, focused and authoritative if the things go awry. And, compared to the frightening alternative, it might even buy you crucial time to have a coffee and Instagram break, too.


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