Are you ready for the inevitable crisis coming your way? Do you think it will be the same as the last one? Will you have the ability to make the hard decisions? My experience tells me that every organisation should take stock of how they coped with the last crisis and how they are planning for the next.
I’ve never managed a crisis that followed the rules, and I’ve managed plenty. Likewise, I’ve never walked a client through a storm during which we followed a crisis management plan to the letter, no matter how simple and well written it was. Plans are one thing, but those with real life, as opposed to theoretical, experience will tell you. It’s a case of trust in God, but lock your car.
I’ve seen a few things during my nearly 20 years in reputation management and I believe there is one simple truth. There remains a clear division between those who recover well from a crisis and those who don’t.
I’ve been around, as the saying goes and regardless of whether the client is a mature business or green as the grass in Ireland, the strategy to surviving is the same. As with most things, it’s about doing the basics well. I know this sounds obvious but trust me when I say you’d be surprised by how many don’t get this one simple step wrong.
Getting this one simple thing wrong happens for one simple reason: nothing paralyses like fear. The creation of fear is nuclear in a crisis that threatens to blow up an organisation – literally or reputationally.
Getting the small stuff wrong leads to common mistakes that aren’t considered to be big ticket items. A good example of this is organisational or management denial. With denial comes delay. In a crisis time is the enemy. You have one chance only to act early and well.
I recall standing in front of a client as the storm in question was building, calmly explaining why they should be worried and what we needed to do. Immediately. They were in denial. They failed to act.
Forty-eight hours later, they were also in a world of pain. Thing about it is this – when you weigh up the risk of over-reacting in the early days of a crisis, the worst that can happen is that you stand down and get back to business as usual. On the flip side, there is a tiny window of opportunity that, if missed, there’s no way to reposition and the reputational damage is amplified.
Typically, denial is a result of fear of the unfolding situation, but it can also stem from a refusal to listen. Otherwise known as arrogance. I could offer a couple of other less genteel descriptions but I will leave those to your imagination.
Clients’ paying for advice that they refuse to take is as old as time itself but in the middle of a crisis, the client needs to be brave and humble enough to know what they don’t know, to be able to listen and follow advice. At the heart of this is trust, and trust comes from relationship. The bedrock of navigating a crisis is this relationship. It has to exist before the crisis. Let me explain.
Firstly, every organisation of decent size should have a trusted relationship with an external crisis management specialist. No, that’s not self-serving, that’s just common sense. In the middle of a crisis a fresh eye, with independent views are critical. In a crisis, we bunker down and seek the familiar. It’s human nature. Fearless, external advice is critical.
The next component is preparedness, not being caught with your pants down. That means having key people regularly media trained. Media savvy is not just about verbal skills, but about your staff’s media intelligence; understanding the news environment, who their stakeholders are and how they’d be expected to operate if the proverbial hit the fan.
Relationships with media are now more important than ever. It always bemuses me how an organisation that treats media stakeholders with contempt are shocked when they cop a hiding during a crisis situation. Media relationships for any organisations should be like a healthy marriage, not a one-night stand.
When trouble hits, friends are needed and there needs to be a bank of trust from which to draw. That principle remains the same even in today’s digital age of 24/7-news cycle, twitter and every other platform that must be juggled. An organisation needs to know who their key media stakeholders are, and ensure they have the appropriate, trusting relationship.
I could write for days on this topic, on the things I’ve seen, the problems I’ve been confronted with, the lessons I’ve helped clients learn. Then at the end of the day the brands and organisations that recover well, and swiftly, never defend the indefensible. They never shy away from responsibility. To be clear, this doesn’t mean falling on your sword with the first public comment, it means acknowledging what’s happened. An expression of empathy. A commitment to transparency. Easy to say, harder to do when the house is burning down but that’s the difference between those who play the game and those who yell at the umpire from the sidelines.
Some of you think it will never happen to you, and I pray you’re right. Chances are that it will, though. At some point, and in some capacity. So just keep it simple. Plan. Be prepared. Be open. Test your capacity, internal and external, regularly. Make sure there are no holes in the boat, no leaks in the roof. Be honest enough to ask for help first, not after the house has burned down.
Gemma Tognini is the Founder and Executive Director of GTmedia – strategic communications, a full-service corporate affairs, PR and reputation management firm. The business was established in 2003 and has successfully partnered with clients nationally and around the globe for 17 years. She is a sought-after strategic advisor to a diverse range of clients in the corporate sector, both privately held and listed. Her crisis management experience spans nearly two decades and she has the war wounds to prove it.
Gemma was the 2014 Business Owner of the year in the Telstra Businesswomen’s Awards, and a finalist in the Entrepreneur of the Year category in 2017.
Gemma is also an opinion columnist with the Australian, the West Australian, and the Sydney Daily Telegraph. She is a regular contributor on Sky News as both an anchor and program guest.
Gemma is an ambassador for Opportunity International Australia and has served as a non-exec director of Surf Life Saving WA, The Salvation Army of WA and The Starlight Children’s Foundation.