A business crisis is always challenging and, despite preparations, can behave like it was not anticipated in the first place.

The workforce is thrown into disarray. Despite the best of intentions, people start to speculate. Every decision, even those with no connection to the crisis, is scrutinised and dissected, adding on workload to an already stressed team.

And this only describes the internal situation within the organisation.

Outside, customers and stakeholders are encountering a lack of relevant and usable context and information. They start to contact the organisation, tying up more resources to reassure them.

Satisfaction levels of both receiving information and being content with the amount of information received drop.

These customers start to form their own groups, first privately, then publicly as groups merge together to share, cross-analyse information from the organisation and to speculate.

Every small infraction and careless mistake is held up high for the public to see, and to judge.

Welcome to a textbook crisis.  

In peace, prepare for war.

The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies defines crisis management as “the measures and methodologies used to recognise, control and limit the damage of a crisis, and its ripple effects.”

From a communicator’s perspective, we would adapt it to include the strategy-based approach including systems and processes that help with identifying and responding to a negative impact activity or event to an organisation’s business, brand and reputation.

It can be challenging maintaining control over all communications channels, especially when a crisis strikes.

This is compounded when the issue involves customers and the public. While it takes time for facts to be established internally, digital and social media channels are buzzing with speculations, distortions and assumptions of ill or negative intent.

Against this backdrop, many brands tend to assume a far more defensive position than required and adopt a siege mentality.

The comments on social media resemble an army at the gates searching for a gap to exploit, widen and overwhelm the defenders.

That was the old playbook.

However, it does not need to be so.

Brands and organisations are best served by being aware of their environment and pre-empting issues. Organisations that are willing to empower their front lines and be proactive can prevent small fires from becoming bigger and further fanned into flames.

To do so, they must anticipate and prepare for a crisis before it happens.

This is important given how easily control of the narrative is lost due to the speed of communications, through the online/digital medium and through small community groups.

Some steps include:

strtgcommsgrp - crisis management

In war, prepare for peace.

The crisis has happened. The enemies are at the gate. They are burning the walls and fanning the flames of discontent where “any” and “no” response is good enough.

Let’s look at 3 specific inflection points where we can prevent the crisis – across the environment, external parties, and speculators – from gaining high ground.

Inflection point #1 – The calm before the storm

There is usually a window of time from the onset of the crisis to the escalation on digital/social/community channels where a brand can pre-empt with a statement or response towards accountability, transparency and action without giving away liability.

In an online environment where anonymity provides a measure of confidence, it can be difficult to identify which customers or groups to handle first.

Do not dilute your focus. Identify or acknowledge what the issue or problem is. Craft a statement that shares information about what is known at this point. Share the immediate steps being taken to handle the issue.

The objective is to convince as many commentators as possible that there is a team behind the scenes managing the issue with logic and practicality. Promise to give updates on official communications channels with a realistic timeline, especially if it involves the public.

Inflection point #2 – Divide the enemy at the gate

Despite point #1, there will be commentators with different agendas rushing to share their opinions and feelings. Emotionally, it is fair for an organisation to acknowledge customers’ feelings, given that we (hopefully) care about our customers.

This means you can apologise specifically for the shortfall in experience. Should you take responsibility for the entire mess up yet? That depends on the information available, and the approach the legal team recommends.

Continue to provide information in the form of updates on official communications channels such as a blog, social media channel or email. Make sure that traditional media can access official information readily, and that at least one media-trained representative is made available.

The objective in #2 is to answer as many key groups – customers, stakeholders, investors, etc – as possible with customised statements, narratives while reminding them about the timeline for fact-finding or investigation.

This step will whittle away the commentators that are there for a spectacle and help them realise that the issue is being dealt with rationally and respectfully.

Inflection point #3 – Meet speculation with facts across all communications channels

The passage of time online is relatively quicker than ‘real time’.

There will be a core group of commentators that are quick to offer analysis, interpretation and opinions that will be updated in their ‘real time’. These commentators will latch onto any sign and signal including narrative, copy used, time spent to respond and any delays in the process.

This is where brands usually go silent in order not to provoke or encourage speculation or further trolling.

To prevent loss of the high ground, organisations should go on the offensive here.

Provide calm and logical rebuttals of the speculations with facts. Share about the direction that the ongoing investigation is taking, without needing to provide specifics such as names, locations, or other company-sensitive information.

Make sure that the sharing is done consistently across official channels to prevent any misunderstanding of the information; and for different commentator groups to assume a breach of defenses.

The objective here is chip away at a commentator’s perceived advantage of speed by ‘slowing them down’ through the offer of information to their online audience. Without momentum, the commentator must work harder to analyse the information provided to pick on an area.

If the information is clear and rational, it might even offer the opportunity to convert them to the brand’s perspective. That would truly be a tactical advantage and victory over the issue is there for the taking.

strtgcommsgrp - dealing with a crisis

Sidebar: Sun Tzu’s full quote: “In war, prepare for peace; in peace, prepare for war.”

In the context of war, Sun Tzu advises while preparing for battle, one should also consider the aftermath and plan for peace.

This means that the ultimate goal of war should be to achieve peace rather than just victory. In peace, one should be prepared for war, meaning that even during peaceful times, one should be vigilant and ready to defend oneself against potential threats.

A key insight shared through the quote is that of being proactive and anticipating future challenges. This can help to mitigate risks and prevent a potential problem from becoming a full-blown crisis. There is an emphasis on the importance of strategy, planning, and preparedness in all aspects of life, not just in times of war or conflict.

For communicators, a crisis can occur at any time, and it is crucial to be prepared for potential crises and to have a plan in place. We should be proactive in identifying potential risks and preparing for crises that may arise.

During times of crisis, the focus should be on both addressing the immediate situation as well as the aftermath and work towards a resolution that achieves a return to stability. This means considering the impact on stakeholders and developing strategies to rebuild reputation.

3 best practices you can start with today to help with crisis management

Crisis management requires a proactive approach that focuses on creating a strategy that covers both pre and post-crisis, involving a successful response and the repair of trust with audiences and stakeholders.

Here are 3 best practices to begin a crisis management plan with:

Set-up the war room

Make a plan and gather resources

Determine the chain of command

With these 3 ‘opening’ steps, communicators can play a key role in preparing their organisation to manage a crisis.

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