How to avoid comms crisis turbulence

How to avoid comms crisis turbulence

Eleanor Frere

Eleanor Frere

We all went on a summer holiday… or maybe not if you happened to book your flight with BA.

Strikes and IT outages wreaked havoc this summer, with numerous cancellations and delays (in one instance, all apparently due to a plug being pulled out). Not only could this quickly turn your dream vacation into the holiday from hell, it’s also a PR person’s nightmare.

In any industry, there’s never a good time for something negative and unwanted to crop up, and certainly not during the height of summer in the travel industry. And of course, the challenge with crisis situations is that seemingly minor incidents need to be handled correctly. If not, they will also slowly chip away at that reputation you’ve worked so hard to build up and eventually crack it completely.

It’s inevitable that there will be tricky situations to navigate through, but for the comms teams, you shouldn’t need to panic, strap on a life jacket or make your way to the nearest emergency exit: you’ve got this.

All too often though, many businesses are still doing exactly that, getting their approach and reaction wrong. So, if something does arise, what should you say, how and when should you say it, or should you take a leaf from Ronan Keating’s book and say nothing at all?

Staying shtum – the no comment predicament

“No comment” is a famous phrase uttered by many a celebrity or politician, but in today’s media landscape not saying something is a comment in itself. Aston Martin has recently featured in the media over serious losses after its IPO, but most notable of all was the lack of anyone to comment. Indeed, just a day after the news broke, the Daily Telegraph followed up with publishing a whole piece analysing why the CEO didn’t say anything.

It seems that many companies still have not learnt from Facebook’s hard lesson last year during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as many media sources asked, “Where’s Zuckerberg?” With so many ways to share news and communicate with the public and customers, companies are expected to say something. Not doing so can be taken as a snub, not taking an issue seriously or caring about customers, or even an indication of guilt.

However, there can be a right time to say nothing. In any crisis, it’s important to establish the facts: who is calling you and are they who they say they are? If it’s an unhappy customer, then should you pass it on to customer services? Similarly, is this something that has been a problem in the past? If it is just someone with a personal vendetta now is the time to decline to speak. When it comes to social media trolls, do not engage!

Saying nothing can be a bold move, so just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Fanning the flames

When we were kids, we were all told: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While as grown adults we may not always quite follow this mantra, when it comes to the world of comms, there can be something to be said for it.

If you do decide to speak up, it’s important to keep your emotions in check and stick to the facts. An extreme reaction may be seen as providing grounds and proof to accusations and can make the situation a whole lot worse. Few of us have forgotten Elon Musk’s Twitter debacle over Space X’s submarine and the Thailand Caves.

Similarly, don’t make any promises or claims you can’t stick to. When TSB experienced service outages last year, it jumped the gun, explaining that the service would be down over the weekend but up and fully running again on the Monday. This was not the case until many days later. TSB’s continued customer dissatisfaction (not to mention subsequent summons by MPs) are testament to hasty promises doing more harm than good.

The biggest faux pas? Shifting the blame to another party. Here TSB also made a false move, trying to push the problems onto Sabadell. But when it comes to trying to manage your reputation, this is not going to sit well with your customers ‒ always take responsibility and hold yourself accountable.

If what you have to say is only going to make things worse, it may well be time to heed your parents’ advice.

Having your say

So how can you differentiate and make sure that you’re putting forward your view, rather than just setting a match to the situation? Here are some top tips:

  • Preparation: Don’t put forward an unprepared spokesperson to speak to a national newspaper with five minutes notice. Know who the go-to person is for discussing topics and ensure you provide them with a full overview and background of the situation. If it’s a sensitive topic, try to push for written comment over an interview because this enables you to have more say over what exactly is communicated to the press and public.
  • Local teams: Giving a timely and considered reply can be tricky. One work-around is to have a small designated crisis team in each company region. This will give you the ability to review anything to be shared in public, ensuring that you get the right message out there, quickly.
  • Medium: It’s not only a question of what you say but also how. As service outages continued for TSB the CEO shared his apologies on Twitter but with the problem worsening, for many, a simple Tweet didn’t quite suffice. So, ask yourself, what is the best medium for this message? Social is the best way to spread that message far and wide but if a serious apology is needed, a direct, personal communication with your customers and stakeholders is better. O.B. Tampons took it a whole step further with personalised singing apologies.
  • Action: Finally, and most importantly, don’t just speak - do. Beyond just stating the facts of the situation, ensure that you outline what action is or has been taken, what will be happening in the future, the new measures to prevent this occurring again, how you may be encouraging others to follow better practices and, most importantly, how you’re going to make it up to your customers. Landing back with our people at BA, maybe time for a few inflight freebies? Whatever you do, make sure you do follow it through.

 

In many countries, the summer is a quiet period, but this isn’t always true - and many firms have found that out the hard way! With September around the corner and a new year less than a hundred days away, it’s more important than ever to be prepared. So, buckle up and with some preparation, even a bit of turbulence can still result in a smooth landing.

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