This week marks the anniversary of one of the most traumatic and, at the time, an unbelievable atrocity in a small town in Scotland.
Few of us who were around 20 years ago can fail to recall the TV news footage of a devastated group of families crowding round the entrance to Dunblane Primary School eager for news – desperately waiting to be communicated with.
It is that flow of information that is key to the integrity, approachability and ultimately trustworthiness of most organisations at a time of crisis.
At its most basic, a crisis is anything that affects or has the impact to affect the way a company or organisation would normally do business.
A crisis doesn’t need to involve death or destruction, although sometimes they do, but if it can breach your business it has the capacity to have an effect on you, your reputation, the reputation of your business and your position within the industry.
Reputations which have been built over years can be lost literally in the posting of 140 characters.
Can you afford not to have a tried and tested crisis communications plan or learn to communicate efficiently, effectively and with authority throughout a crisis period?
In today’s world of communications, quite often it is the media or an online source who will first become aware of the crisis. At this point, it is woefully too late to hope that the journalist will be kind to you and considerate of your circumstances. They will smell a strong story and will hold nothing back to drill down to the facts leading up to it and your company’s handling during the crisis.
Lesson 1 is to build media relationships and establish trust and good communication channels long before you anticipate being in a crisis situation (if ever).
If the unthinkable happened in your organisation, do you have clear roles for who does what? Who is responsible for the cascading of information internally at 1am on a Sunday morning – if required? Who drafts and clears the first media statement and if they are out the country at the time – who’s their deputy and do they know they have this role?
These seem fairly assumptive questions, but you’ll be surprised by how many organisations just cross their fingers and hope that the crisis hits someone else.
By investing time in preparing and testing a crisis communications plan, the process should also throw up areas of weakness and therefore give you an opportunity to rectify and strengthen all aspects of the business.
Lesson 2 – have a clear outline of who does what, where the levels of responsibility lie and if possible test it all through a ‘safe’ scenario based training session.
With the crisis now underway, from your company’s perspective the need for speed, without compromising on sound advice, is paramount. Back in the days of Dunblane, the first few hours of how you responded to a crisis were crucial – nowadays, you’re lucky if you get a full 20 minutes, such is the appetite of the plethora of social media channels to be first in with the news or updates.
Having tested your response plan, you will have a clear process that is implemented during a crisis. This will ensure that your organisation is equipped to the best of its ability to handle difficult questions under duress and to consider the needs of all your stakeholders in the short, medium and long term.
In the event of a crisis, it is the classic control and manage approach which will steer you through. Remain courteous in all communications and say what you can, as soon as you can. Do not be drawn into speculation or assumptions – stick to the facts that you know and have approval to share.
What aids success throughout the process is everyone’s knowledge of the role they play and close liaison with their colleagues and any external authorities (Council, Police, Fire, etc.) who may come into play depending on the circumstances.
If the incident results in a loss of life, then you may find that every instruction and action made as part of your response comes under scrutiny at a Fatal Accident Inquiry.
Lesson 3 – have a crisis communications handling plan and test it to see if it works
In summary no-one wants to consider the worst but by taking time to prepare for it your company will be in a much better position to take control of the situation and the messages that you want to get out there.
By testing you plan, you can hone skills and messages to ensure that your representatives maintain your high standards throughout and help protect your reputation. Don’t speculate or deviate from the facts to ‘feed’ the story and keep a note of what information is shared and when.
Finally keep the media and other stakeholders onside throughout the crisis period because it will eventually subside and business will get back to normal.
Elaine McKean is the Managing Director at Indigo and was previously Senior Information Officer, advising the Scottish Education Minister at Dunblane in 1996