How can you draw comparisons between the Rana Plaza factory collapse and the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry? What is the common ground between preparing for a crisis at The Ryder Cup and preventing a crisis at an independent school? How can training Foreign Office embassy staff possibly relate to coaching the CEO of a children’s charity?
Over the course of a career working in crisis communications, despite the uniqueness of every single situation, common themes emerge.
Crisis communications are changing and the role of the in-house communicator has become particularly challenging. Crisis comms are about speed and fluidity as well as having a strategic mindset; it is about making decisions when information is lacking; and about embracing your situation, no matter how difficult. It is a very unique skill set.
Spare a thought, then, for in-house teams when they face the onslaught of a crisis: not only must they gather the resources, access the skills and deliver a quality response; they must also manage internal communications and decision-making, which are often constructs of well-entrenched hierarchies.
Crises change everything. They test people as people, not just as professionals. Internal rules change, and accepted norms can disappear.
How to navigate this? Here I offer three major insights.
Understand the difference between perceived trust and real trust
I usually start a brief with a certain level of trust with a new client. This is perceived. It is not real. My first objective in understanding the situation is always to build real trust: the kind that enables me to break through internal agendas and establish the unvarnished truth of the matter. That is when you start to get ahead of the crisis.
In-house colleagues find this particularly challenging. I have seen examples of media managers and marketing teams being excluded completely from key meetings during a crisis, often to their complete amazement. Perceived trust is what helps you get through normal times - real trust exists only when the bonds that connect you professionally are tested, and survive.
Keep your eyes on the prize
There are many reasons why crises look bad from the outside. But there are just as many reasons why it might look worse than it really is.
There are two explanations for this. Firstly, in a modern environment that expects full disclosure and transparency from brands looking to explain problems, the very process of public catharsis can itself be strategically useful. Responding to expectations, owning your mistakes, can breed loyalty and reaffirm your commitment to certain important values.
Secondly, bad headlines do not always affect companies in the way you expect. Because we now have huge amounts of data at our fingertips, it is possible for crisis managers to make more informed choices about how to respond to public criticism. If it’s causing tangible problems such as reducing sales inquiries or share price, it’s clear action is needed; but if many of your client’s most important measures of success are holding up, you at least have different options available.
Do not trust anything anyone ever says
The best crisis managers have a natural inquisitiveness. They investigate, always asking one more question.
In a crisis, many people enter self-preservation mode. Every element of a situation will have several perspectives. If you accept the first version of events, you are not being investigative enough. Ask for evidence, proof points and examples. Or just ask ‘why’?
This is a deliberate mode of thinking. It requires a certain stubbornness and diplomacy. After all, the more you know, the more you can help.
Crisis management is not for everyone. But with these three lessons, you can go a long way to building positive outcomes.
Billy Partridge is head of northern region at Grayling.