Effective communication in a crisis can mean the difference between survival and failure. As your company's legal representative, you are likely to be involved in any crisis team and be looked to for advice as your company plans its response, so what should you look out for and how can you prepare?

What Is Crisis Management?

Unforeseen and unwelcome events can impact on an organization at any time. In some cases, you may have some warning (e.g., an industrial dispute or a failure in your supply chain), in others you won't. Natural disasters, accidents, stakeholder activism, crime, the loss of a key partner or contract and economic pressures are just some of the things that could precipitate a crisis situation that may cause damage to your reputation and lost earnings.

Crisis management involves:

  • identifying a crisis;
  • forming a crisis team;
  • monitoring the situation;
  • taking restorative action;
  • communicating to stakeholders; and
  • post-crisis, learning from the experience and adjusting the way you work if necessary.

Why Is Communication Important?

Communicating effectively and managing the messages you share with stakeholders, either directly or through the media, can mean the difference between customers, investors and the public staying with you or turning against you. In the event of a crisis materializing, one of the first things your crisis team needs to do is to create a mission statement, agreeing the team's purpose, objectives and the top two or three messages you want to share with your audience.

You then need to define all your audiences, including:

  • employees;
  • customers;
  • members of the public;
  • the media;
  • government representatives and/or regulators;
  • emergency services;
  • special interest groups;
  • activists; and
  • analysts and investors.

For each audience, you need to agree what the message should be and who is going to deliver it, how they will do this and when.

When doing this planning, bear in mind:

  • Your nominated spokespeople will not be the only people approached by the media and members of the public. Make sure all employees are briefed with a short and sensible answer to any enquires and know how they should pass enquiries on. A phrase such as: 'Of course we're working on X, my colleague would be more than happy to tell you more about it, can I take your details so they can give you a call?' gives a better impression than: 'I've been told I can't talk about X'.
  • You are unlikely to get to choose when the media spotlight hits you. If you don't get your side of the story out when it does, coverage and commentary won't go away. Agree on your position promptly, be open and honest and, if the situation is severe enough or you don't feel confident, engage professional communications support at the first signs of difficulty.
  • Using simple language is usually the best policy. In a severe crisis, a senior representative of the company, usually the MD or CEO, should deliver key messages personally and keep it simple rather than trying to hide behind jargon or statistics.
  • You should identify and share next steps and remedial actions as much as you can. Make sure you keep updating your audiences on demonstrable progress. Keep updates frequent and focused on actions you're taking.
  • You need to keep the lines of communication open. Monitor media coverage. Listen to employees and other stakeholders. Ensure different teams in your business are sharing information and keeping the crisis team up to date.

What Role Does Social Media Play?

The increased use of tools such as Twitter, which are not currently bound by the same reporting constraints as traditional media, can escalate crisis situations or even in some cases, cause them. Consumer and stakeholder activists can use Twitter to generate negative publicity about your organization that is then picked up in the conventional media.

If you're dealing with a crisis and Twitter can help, then use it. For example, Twitter updates from your corporate feed could provide affected customers with regular, reliable updates in the event of a service outage.

When briefing staff, you may wish to ask them to refrain from commenting on the situation on social media. Or, depending on the nature of the crisis, it may be appropriate to give them some guidelines about what they can say and encourage them to participate.

To help avoid a social medialed crisis, you may wish to consider investing in some simple online monitoring for your company name. Depending on the nature of your business, this may be best run by your marketing or customer service function and will give you an early indication of any stakeholder complaints that you may be able to address before they escalate.

Why Should the Legal Team Get Involved?

In the event of a crisis, it's likely that your company will be under greater public scrutiny and subject to more media coverage than normal. Depending on the situation, there may be legal or regulatory implications to consider in terms of what is said and what is reported. As well as advising on the content of messages from a legal perspective, you should also be monitoring what is being said about your organization by others so you can take action if necessary.

How Can I Prepare for a Crisis?

As the company's legal representative, you should be involved in contingency planning, which will allow your company to prepare for and practice responding in a crisis. Ask to see what contingency plans have been prepared for possible eventualities such as:

  • a natural disaster disrupting operations;
  • loss of a significant customer or partner; and
  • mass customer or stakeholder action.

Also, consider any potential legal or regulatory threats, where you may be expected to lead the crisis team, such as:

  • bribery or corrupt practices;
  • a competition investigation; and
  • the discovery of fraud or other criminal activity by one of your senior leaders.

Time spent considering what could happen, how you would react and who would need to be involved will make your reactions faster and more effective if the worst does happen

Crisis Checklist

  • Planning for Potential Disasters - What could go wrong? Do you know how you'd respond? Do you have access to information (contact details for key personnel, for example) in a disaster situation?
  • Identifying a Crisis - What has happened? What's the likely impact on your business? What are the financial repercussions? Is this serious enough to warrant specialist communications support?
  • Forming the Crisis Team - Who's involved? What are their skills? What are their roles in the team? Who has been media trained?
  • Putting Together a Mission Statement for the Crisis Team - What's the team trying to achieve? What are the obstacles? What are the top two or three messages you need to get across?
  • Monitoring the Situation - Who is doing this? Are you monitoring social media, such as Twitter, as well as the press?
  • Identifying your Audiences - Who do you need to talk to? What is the impact of the situation on them? How will you reach them?
  • Planning your Messages - What are you trying to communicate? How is this different for each of your audiences?
  • Drafting your Messages - Is your language simple and easy to understand? Have you checked your legal position? Are you being open and honest?
  • Briefing Employees Outside the Crisis Team - What's your message to them? Have you given them guidelines on how to talk to people outside the company? Have you given them guidelines on talking about the situation on social media?
  • Post Crisis - What have you learnt? What did you do well? What would you have done differently? How can you prevent this situation arising again?


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