Accurate, honest, transparent

Accurate, honest, transparent

The coronavirus outbreak has exposed cracks in crisis communication plans across all businesses. Michael Bennett explains the importance of a robust strategy – and how to implement one

If you feel the rug has been pulled from under you by the covid-19 pandemic, you’re not alone.

Businesses everywhere have been caught off guard by what has become a global crisis. A recurring complaint from the public over the past few weeks has been about a lack of clear information – from government, employers and the businesses they rely on. Of course, a pandemic such as coronavirus is uncharted territory for all of us, but if you’re among those using the ‘no-one could have planned for this’ defence, I’m afraid this is not quite the case. While it is impossible to predict the exact nature of a crisis, you should always assume the next one is just around the corner.
It’s not surprising that most businesses focus on internal issues. The priority is to keep things running as routinely as possible. But making communications an afterthought won’t do you any favours with stakeholders, customers, staff or the media.
When a crisis hits, these parties want as much information as possible, especially when it’s a matter of public health and safety. Be proactive and honest to avoid a PR catastrophe.
Create a plan that covers all possible scenarios and assess how likely they are. There are two kinds of crisis: uncontrolled crises (food recalls, fire, employee injury, deaths) and controlled ones (layoffs, closures, major product changes). Plan for both.
Start by identifying potential risks, then prepare statements and likely responses so you’re not caught out when approached by a journalist or stakeholder. It’s also essential to appoint a crisis team so everyone knows their responsibilities ahead of time.
This includes ensuring nominated spokespeople get media training. Reporters make it look easy, but delivering a statement under pressure doesn’t come naturally to most people, and in the midst of a crisis is not the time to practice. Mindset is also important. While the temptation may be to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass, you should be open and honest with your audiences and engage with journalists. That way you will be able to manage the information you put out and the media reporting of it. Having said all this, I must stress that you should not neglect internal communications. In many ways this is just as important, if not more so than external messages. You could have a watertight external communications plan in place, but it will count for nothing if an employee or supplier goes on social media or to the press with inaccurate information.
On the subject of social media, make sure you monitor and manage what’s being said, especially if the press is reporting on you. Journalists are sure to be monitoring these platforms for additional information or news angles.
A communications plan should form a key part of your organisations overall crisis plan and should be reviewed annually. You should also run a crisis scenario on a regular basis to identify any flaws in your strategy.
Why is all this so important? Because once a crisis hits it’s too late. Prevention is better than cure so don’t wait for problems to happen.
Remember, storms don’t last forever and when this particular one passes there will still be plenty of comms work to do. Post event communications are vital in reassuring suppliers, customers, staff and stakeholders that things are back to normal.

Michael BENNETT is MD of Pelican Communications, a specialist in the environment & CSR, food, packaging & logistics and trade association sectors. Michael has advised many businesses on sustainability, green communications and PR strategies.

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