Ruth Harrison Daves, Senior Account Manager, Scriba PR

Ruth Harrison-Davies, Senior Account Manager at Scriba PR.

There’s no denying that COVID-19 has had a phenomenal impact on businesses around the world. But what happens if we delve deeper into a crisis, and your organisation becomes the epicentre of a media furore?

Ruth Harrison-Davies, Senior Account Manager at Scriba PR explores why crisis communications matters, and what to do in times of trouble.

So, what is crisis communication?

Warren Buffett (an American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist) put it perfectly: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

While most firms will (hopefully!) have a contingency plan for when the proverbial hits the fan business-wise, it’s important to make sure that preparation is bolstered by a complementary media strategy.

Although agreeing the right ‘party line’ might not be atop most financial directors’ to-do lists, this foresight will be worth its weight in gold if the time comes to implement it. Reputation management and crisis communications expertise is when PR really comes alive and pays dividends – because during this time, decisions can make or break a company’s future fortunes, and even its very survival.

Although the global population is wading through a crisis at this very moment, you don’t need a pandemic to warrant a suite of carefully thought-out communications messages. Often, these are crucial when anything happens which could have serious consequences for ongoing success.

Of course, death or injury in a working environment is one, but also damage to property, acts of nature, terrorism, misconduct – even redundancy and restructure – or a figurehead caught saying or doing the wrong thing, at the wrong time.

Crisis communications extend way beyond the traditional media

Contrary to popular belief, “no comment” simply won’t cut it when your business is in the spotlight. And, alongside the ‘official’ media channels, social media platforms are synonymous with spreading gossip like wildfire – particularly what might have once been an issue of lower significance.

These ‘citizen journalists’ who take it upon themselves to report their version of ‘the facts’ from the screen of their smartphones work quickly, and things will escalate if you don’t have a team in place to join this conversation with an authoritative voice from the moment the rumblings begin.

Take O2’s response to its networks being down in 2019. Although Twitter was alight with users ranting that they were unable to check their notifications, the social media team responded to every single tweet brilliantly – with genuine, personalised and often witty comments which quickly pacified customers. I even tweeted them to applaud their handling of the crisis – from one social media manager to another.

Another example was when I was working in motorsport, and a friend of mine got into a pretty serious accident at Donington Park. Billy Monger’s horrendous crash was broadcast live on ITV4 to millions of viewers and within the space of 10 minutes, social media commentary had him trending – and presumed dead.

Billy was – thankfully – very much alive, but a pre-prepared social media ‘holding statement’ promising updates, as and when available, was needed to bring the gossip to an end. Even if it’s something short, an official response is vital – particularly if the media is likely to pick up on the story.

How to handle a media crisis

Whether you’re looking at coronavirus-specific comms or your wider business strategy, these 10 tips will help you prepare for the worst, while opting for the best.

 

  1. Consider all potential crises: Clarity around what could go wrong – even the most obscure problem – will help you when required.

 

  1. Don’t panic: A weighty internal and external comms plan – as well as a single figurehead to coordinate its delivery, is key.

 

  1. Take responsibility: Don’t try to cover up a PR crisis whatever you do – it will only worsen the damage.

 

  1. Be proactive: In today’s real-time world of social media, and with critics everywhere, communication matters more than ever – because reputations can be lost in an instant.

 

  1. Get ahead of the story: Don’t wait for the internet to have played accuser, judge and jury before reacting. Manage the message from the start – even if it’s just a holding statement.

 

  1. Be ready for social media backlash: You’d be surprised how so many people may have an opinion on a crisis – make sure to respond to each mention tactfully, without copy/paste.

 

  1. Be human: Saying you’re looking into it doesn't make anyone feel better. Assuring people that you understand, you’re sorry and you’re trying your best to fix things is important – as is promising to take action.

 

  1. Understand the situation and share it: Communicate all relevant details to key stakeholders. If you don’t have a voice in the matter, people immediately assume guilt.

 

  1. Avoid knee-jerk reactions: An unprepared team, or non-media-trained employees will often provide emotional, frenzied responses. Publish a holding statement, then freeze all external communication until you can assess what’s going on.

 

  1. Be prepared: No one wants to be at the centre of a scandal but scrambling around when ‘needs must’ only takes things from bad to worse.

 

Kate Buckle
Article by Kate Buckle
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