Weathering a communications storm: What can we learn from the recent KPMG crisis?

Weathering a communications storm: What can we learn from the recent KPMG crisis?

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

The past few weeks must have been pretty stormy in the KPMG comms team. KPMG’s ex-chairman, Bill Michael, recently came under fire for making controversial remarks about his employees “playing the victim card” and “moaning” about their circumstances during the lockdown. The comms team reacted fast and the organisation was quick to make changes – and communicate them well! However, it’s unfortunate that most of the damage took place in a matter of days as Michael’s story trial was analysed and scrutinised by the media in no time at all. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done with repairing KPMG’s damaged reputation and the comms teams are more than likely sorting it as we speak, but what would you do if this happened to your organisation?

Of course, this question may feel like nothing more than hypothetical but getting stuck in these kinds of dilemmas isn’t as far away as you may want to believe. It could be something as simple as a video leaking of your CEO or Senior Director saying something in private that goes against the company vision or values. It could be a spokesperson retweeting something without fully understanding the implications. Or even just someone forgetting to change from their social media account to their personal account and tweeting something inappropriate from the company feed. It may seem unlikely, but these things have happened countless times before. Cast your mind back to 2017 when Uber’s founder Travis Kalanic’s argument with a driver was leaked – it cost him his job and a hit to his reputation. We’ve explored this further in our Reputation Shapers guide that you can access here.

There is no doubt that an over-exuberant or insensitive leader somewhere will make mistakes again, and there is so much being written right now about leading with empathy. But, how can you prevent this from happening in the first place and protect your organisation if the heavens open and you find yourself in the middle of a communications storm? Here are three tips to help with weathering the storm:

Take time to train

Just because someone is a good speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to speak to the world. It is so important that senior teams are trained and fully briefed before stepping into the media limelight. And it’s not just about knowing how to speak well with the media, it’s about knowing how to stay on message and communicate appropriately. Similarly, it’s important to know what kind of person they are. Are they likely to lose their temper? Are they stubborn? If so, these things could become an issue and understanding what they may need and supporting them is equally as important.

Remember, it’s not just the media we have to be prepared for. The drama with KPMG stemmed from an internal discussion at a town hall, Uber’s issues arose from a leaked conversation with an employee and countless figureheads have been cancelled on social media for speaking out of turn. Just like the timeless saying goes: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

Staying calm in a crisis

Being in a crisis, regardless of the situation, is a stressful ordeal for anyone to face but being prepared for it makes the experience a bit more palatable. With any media-related plans that have even the slightest possibility of turning sour, your comms teams must be prepared for a crisis situation.

If you aren’t prepared and something has come up to bite you, much like the KPMG comms team must have felt recently, the first step is to pause and understand just how damaging this is. Knowing what you are working with will help to rationalise the next steps and understand how much help and support you may need. This can also help to understand how rapid your response should be. Jumping on the issue too soon could make it seem insincere but leaving it too late leaves time for speculation to occur.

Secondly, what is the best way to communicate your response? Is it sending a press release, or holding a press conference? Or even just focusing on one interview to clear the person’s name? Whatever is the best practice for the situation, stick with that and follow it through until the end. Depending on the scenario, actions may be your next step. When looking at KPMG, the cultural lack of awareness might not end with the removal of the chairman but it’s a start – this needs to be followed up with proactive action from the company to get their reputation back on track to prove to their people, clients and the outside world that they are doing things to actively improve these situations.

Finally, ensure you are monitoring the situation and staying on your toes. Just because the news cycle is over, doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you!

Crystal clear communications

The vocabulary we use to communicate is just as important as the way we communicate. An easy way to ensure the right language is used is by accurately preparing for communications – this can be through detailed briefing documents with sections that focus on topics and phrases to actively avoid, or in-person training sessions. Granted, pressure or nerves may get in the way, and that cannot be helped, but giving support and practising should help to avoid potential mishaps.

The only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is saying nothing at all. When faced with a difficult question, it may feel safer to say “no comment” or divert from the question itself but this can be just as damaging. Recently, Matt Hancock came under fire from Piers Morgan on This Morning following the free school meals scandal. Instead of answering the question, Hancock merely recited the “safe” phrases and unsurprisingly, the interview spread like wildfire. Should his comms team have been prepared for this question? Absolutely! But communications can be unpredictable and with the power of social media, one foot in the wrong direction can become a crisis in a matter of minutes.

Getting it right with communications is tough – the world is unpredictable and what grabs people’s attention is changing every day. As comms professionals, we must ensure that we are prepared for all outcomes, good and bad. These tips will help you to prepare your teams and leaders for communications gone bad but sometimes it helps to get an outsider to help. We run workshops and personal coaching programmes that can help with these issues and prevent them before they arise – you can read more about our services and offerings here.

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