Communicating in crisis: fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Cheryl Stevens  Communications Manager at Bromford Group, outlines how organisations within the housing sector can be  prepared should a crisis strike.

Last year I spent time researching how prepared the housing sector is should crisis strike. We all know events such as last year’s tragic Grenfell Tower fire can unfold within minutes, leading to devastating consequences for not only the victims, but also their families, friends and the wider community. While the safety and wellbeing of our customers is an undisputed priority, another consequence of such tragedies is the effect they can have on the survival of organisations seen as either responsible or closely associated with the incident.

As the story picks up pace, an organisation’s reputation is put on the line. It can find itself propelled into the limelight via a vast range of communication channels, driven by both the mainstream media and the general public. Coping during a serious crisis often relies on intuition and experience, with a good dose of common sense thrown in. There are, however, effective steps we can take to ensure we are as prepared as we can be when (and it is a when) we find ourselves facing a crisis.

1. The home of crisis

Where does a crisis actually ‘sit’ in an organisation? Sometimes crisis planning takes place in corporate departments when the crisis is driven by a particular issue, such as a regulatory downgrade. On other occasions it sits within operational teams to deal with unexpected incidents, such as a gas explosion. It is a mistake for organisations to tag crisis planning onto their business continuity and risk functions, as this can become too rigid and procedural. Instead, create an overarching strategy, sponsored by organisational leaders, to give a greater presence and enable planning to be less process or finance driven.

2. What does crisis actually look like?

Sometimes a crisis feels like it has come out of nowhere, hitting an organisation unexpectedly with no warning. While this can be the case, more often than not there are warning signs. And if there aren’t any, hindsight tells us that if we had sat down and thought about it, we probably could have identified it as a possibility and therefore could have prepared for it. My research revealed this kind of scenario planning is currently happening in a very ad hoc way in the housing sector. Identifying possible scenarios and tracking emerging issues is an activity all organisations should be doing regularly – indeed the Regulator of Social Housing requires it through stress-testing a business plan.

3. Love the brand

Building reputation and communicating well with stakeholders may help us cope better when crisis strikes. The duration and severity of a crisis can be minimised when an organisation produces ongoing engaging and effective messaging. My research identified that although the housing sector generally understands the link between building reputation and minimising impact, we could all benefit from adopting a more strategic approach to nurturing relationships with those who may be our biggest advocates during times of trouble. This ongoing work requires an effective public relations plan. It may not necessarily prevent a crisis but it can play an effective role in how we resolve it.

4. The right structure

When a crisis hits, there’s often an overall idea of who needs to do what, but if structures and systems are not identified beforehand, it can lead to duplication, poorly managed resources and worse, an organisation that doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.  Surprisingly, only half of the organisations I surveyed had a crisis response team in place. This team will be able to make strategic decisions and issue instructions to operational teams, enabling them to manage the situation in a controlled way and will include the leadership team and representatives from finance, communications, human resources and IT.

Ensuring spokespeople are media trained is also crucial. Ideally an organisation should have at least two spokespeople to ensure continuity, as we all know many serious situations don’t disappear at the end of a working day. A concise crisis manual capturing this information and detailing who to contact, how and when should also be available to colleagues.

5. Preparing the message

Once possible scenarios have been identified, it shouldn’t be difficult to build a bank of pre-drafted initial response messages, ready to adapt should crisis strike. Consider identifying team members who will be responsible for disseminating the message as the crisis unfolds, as it will take precedence over day-to-day content. Tesco didn’t grasp this and, when in the middle of the famous horse meat scandal, failed to stop a scheduled tweet informing customers that after a long day, they were ready to ‘hit the hay’.

6. Preparing the message

Some leaders keep crucial information to themselves for fear of it causing unnecessary distress or losing their colleagues’ respect. This is counterproductive: well-informed, trusted colleagues have the power to collectively remedy or ease a serious situation. Ill-informed or mistrusted colleagues have the power to make an incident a whole lot worse.

Every single colleague is a powerful spokesperson for our organisation and because of this, organisations need to embed an internal culture that is transparent, respectful, engaging and demonstrates trust for its people from top to bottom. If we don’t engage with colleagues frequently or openly both during a crisis or day-to-day activities, we’ll have little chance of coping well when things get serious as a result. This may all feel very time consuming and resource heavy, however smart organisations recognise that the work they do today, can make all the difference to their survival tomorrow.

To discuss the issues raised in this article, contact greg.campbell@campbelltickell.com

This article also appears in CT Brief, Issue 34