"Hope for the best, plan for the worst."
This adage rings true, especially in the realm of crisis communications management. In a world teeming with potential threats to reputation, it's imperative to not only avoid crises but also to craft a robust strategy for managing them should they arise.
Every organisation aims to steer clear of harmful issues, and they can of course do more than hope for the best – their entire operational strategy will be built to achieve safe and successful outcomes. However, the absence of a comprehensive crisis management plan is not just naive but potentially hazardous.
In the face of a crisis, the short-term effort expended on strategising and planning can yield immeasurable long-term benefits.
This planning extends beyond high-level concepts; it encompasses the very fundamentals that underpin smooth operations. This involves examining teams, schedules, technological resources, alternate staff locations, communication protocols and crisis monitoring strategies.
It's important to recognise that issues can span a wide spectrum – from a catastrophic system crash in a digital enterprise to an offshore incident or a claim by a former employee. They can manifest as health and safety incidents or even, whisper it, a global pandemic that forces an unprecedented, almighty shift in the way we work.
It was during this latter crisis that Suzanne Edmond, former Group Director of Communications for the Department of Transport at Westminster, truly flexed her crisis leadership muscles. In her illuminating talk titled 'Don’t Panic! An Insider’s Guide to Crisis Communications,' presented at the Ultimate Masterclass Festival organised by the Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, Suzanne shared her experiences advising Cabinet ministers and the intricacies of disseminating rapidly changing, life-saving information to the British public amidst the Covid-19 crisis.
Managing a barrage of daily briefings, COBRA meetings, fluctuating travel restrictions, and dynamic traffic light systems was an unparalleled challenge. Suzanne distilled her wisdom into a core principle: "Prepare, prepare, prepare. Envision the worst-case scenario and amplify it tenfold."
Suzanne rightly advocates for a composed, panoramic assessment of the situation and its demands. Building a capable team and a robust strategy are pivotal. She emphasises the demand for creativity in crisis management, underpinned by sound reasoning based on available data and expertise. She highlights the significance of listening to all voices, regardless of time constraints, pressures, or hierarchies. And in the crucible of crisis, complacency is not an option.
Identifying and assembling a core crisis-response team is essential. The composition depends on the nature of the incident, featuring a leader and a poised public spokesperson, both well-prepared to navigate scrutiny and questioning.
Preserving reputation hinges on also comprehending media dynamics. The communication sector's media backgrounds, enriched by journalistic insights, offer a profound understanding of how the press approaches crises: understanding their perspective, preparing responses and anticipating contingencies are vital.
The tempo of crisis response is critical. It may involve cascading information to those in the know – staff, customers, suppliers, stakeholders. Simultaneously, monitoring diverse platforms and channels is essential.
Post-crisis, introspection is paramount. Evaluating each moving part and identifying areas for improvement are essential for refining crisis management protocols.
In what was a thought-provoking event, Suzanne encapsulated the importance of reviewing each crisis: “I love a ‘lessons learned’ session. Each and every time we learned something new. And that can only be a good thing.”
Lee Harrow, a Communications Director at Engage PR, brings more than 24 years of media and communications expertise to the table. Aberdeen’s Engage has worked with SMEs through to FTSE-listed firms.