Having a crisis? Get your communication right
It used to be said “there's no such thing as bad publicity”. That saying started in the days before social media, which allows anyone to express their opinion on anything, anytime. What was once something a marketing team could manage by spoon-feeding the press with press releases is now often overtaken and steered by the public.
Getting this communication wrong when an organisation has an issue can be costly as these varied examples show:
I started to write this article with security breaches in mind, but as I write, the United Airlines (UA) fiasco is unfolding, where a passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked plan to make way for UA staff that needed to travel on the plane.
The video of the passenger bleeding and being forcibly removed quickly went viral and made its way to the BBC homepage before UA had time to comment. Bearing in mind that the passenger (Dr David Dao) lost two front teeth, suffered a broken nose and "significant" concussion in the incident, the UA CEO (Oscar Munoz) initially issued a statement on Monday apologising "for having to re-accommodate these customers" before an internal email to United staff emerged revealing that he had called the passenger "disruptive and belligerent". This appalling revelation from UA caused social media to ignite and put UA and their CEO in a very bad position.
UA shares fell 4% and experts predict that this will damage the UA brand, which is already struggling in the USA.
Yahoo has suffered several major security issues and doesn’t seem to learn the art of good communication. They experienced the biggest cybersecurity breach of all time when 500 million customer accounts were compromised, but Yahoo contacted just 26 customers. Despite knowing about the issues in 2014, they didn’t advise the affected customers until December 2016; even the Yahoo CEO (Marissa Mayer) admits to knowing about the issues in September 2016.
The consequences of the Yahoo “hack” were significant. Not only was millions of peoples data compromised, but Yahoo’s CEO didn’t receive her bonus and the impending (at the time) sale price of Yahoo to Verizon was cut by $350 million.
Getting it right
If your organisation has an issue, the communication and press releases are extremely important; get one wrong and it can damage your brand, reputation, market value, profits and even your personal income. It is important to have a communications plan that is regularly tested, because in time of crisis, it is too easy to overlook the important aspects.
Have a plan...
Every business should have a contingency plan, but this is often seen as just an "IT thing" to ensure IT services allow an organisation to operate during an issue, such as the office catching fire. However, a good contingency plan also needs to cover other scenarios - many of which require good public relations interaction.
The contingency plan needs to be tested using different scenarios, with an independent facilitator that allows the whole team to take part and contribute.
Here are some pointers for the plan:
Nominate one central point in your organisation for contact with the press. This will ensure that a coordinated, consistent and accurate message is conveyed. You could consider outsourcing this to PR professionals.
An issue could impact your organisation at any time, so your central point of communication needs to be always contactable and have access to the right people in the organisation. Remember that the central point of communication doesn’t have to be one person, it could be a communications team or outsourced service.
The plan should include a list the contact details of who you will need to communicate to. For example, local press, national press, specialist media, your head office and your staff.
Pre-agree who in your organisation can speak to the press and media. Tell your staff that if they are contacted, they should refer it to the central contact and make no comment.
It is highly likely that the senior management of your organisation will need to speak to the press. Make sure they are properly skilled or have had training in media presentation. Watch this analysis of UA's CEO to see why this is so very important. Just because someone runs the company well doesn't mean they are media-savvy.
- You should already have a social media policy, but remind staff what they can and can't post on social media regarding your organisation.
Have a pre-prepared press release document template that includes the contact details you want used. Pre-agree what the release verification and authorisation process is for press releases.
Your use of social media may change during an issue. Consider who should be allowed to post to your social media during this time.
When you have an issue, remember...
Release regular updates, even if you have no further news; the frequency will depend on the issue your organisation is experiencing. If you have long gaps between updates, it could be assumed that you are not actively responding to the issue and the public may fill the gaps for you on social media.
Put press releases onto your organisation's website.
Keep your staff advised of what has happened and updated with what you tell the press, either before or at the same time. Don't do it afterwards as this can lead to employees feeling devalued and not trusted.
Remind your staff not to communicate with the press or use social media connected with your organisation. If they are contacted they should not respond (regardless of what they may know) but refer it to the central contact.
When someone speaks to the press, make sure they are briefed on what to say and not to say.
Before writing an “internal” email, think about how it would be interpreted outside your organisation. Many emails intended for internal use have found their way outside and caused embarrassment. If in doubt, don't send it.
The final reminder is that you have a plan, so use it!
Your communication needs to be...
Timely – social media doesn’t operate on the office hours of your organisation; it is open globally 24 hours a day, every day of the year and your organisation needs to be ready to respond 24*7. Remember that no news is not always good news. Staying silent means that others will fill the gap. If you don’t know all the facts, say so and say that you are investigating.
Sincere – choose your words carefully so it sounds as if you really mean what you say. Your communication needs to reflect the seriousness of the issue and the mood of social media.
Clear to understand and shows you are treating the issue seriously.
Coordinated within your organisation - it's really important that everyone knows what their role is and who is doing what.
Tested frequently. Make sure you test your contingency plan frequently with different scenarios.