By Goke Ilesanmi
It is a reality that all corporate organisations are vulnerable to crises. In short, it is inevitable to be in business without experiencing situations involving lawsuits, sudden changes in company ownership or management, and other volatile situations on which stakeholders often focus.
But the good news is that organisations can better cope with crises if they have established sound and long-term relationship with stakeholders, that is, the people and organisations that are at risk from the decisions and actions of such organisations. No organisation has enough resources to engage in the ideal two-way symmetric dialogue with every stakeholder, so management must allocate resources in the order of priority. Stakeholder relationship management should be a priority task of management. Stakeholders can be assessed and prioritised according to their impact on the organisation.
Public liability companies in times of crises
It is natural that a crisis will have effects on the future financial performance of a company, so crisis communication plans should make full allowance for releasing information to interested parties simultaneously. As regards public liability companies in times of crises, basically such companies are obliged to follow the rules of their local stock exchange in releasing information into the public arena. Kim Harrison, a renowned authority on public relations, says all information relating to the financial performance of such a company has to be announced simultaneously to shareholders through the exchange, analysts, the media and other stakeholders.
Stakeholders’ perception and speed
The stakeholders to a crisis will immediately form their perception about the content of the organisation’s messages in various ways. The first one is the communication speed. First impression is the lasting impression. The first message received on a subject sets the stage for comparison of all future messages on that subject.
The speed with which the first communication is issued can be an indicator to stakeholders and the public as to how prepared the organisation is to respond to the crisis. If stakeholders are not aware of the organisation’s response to the event, then as far as they are concerned, the organisation is not responding. The stakeholders will lose confidence and the organisation will always be attempting to catch up the perception.
Another way through which stakeholders to a crisis form their perception about the content of an organisation’s message is through the facts of a message. The stakeholders will be listening for the facts, so the organisation should get the facts right, repeat them consistently and ensure all credible sources share the same facts. Preparation can help to maximise the amount of information that can be assembled and disseminated.
Trust is another way through which stakeholders to a crisis form their perception. As with risk communication, it is vital to establish trust and credibility with your key audiences. There are four basic elements to establishing trust and credibility through crisis communication. People will realise if these elements are faked. All written and verbal messages during a crisis should contain the following elements: Empathy, competence, honesty and dedication.
Empathy. Empathy should be expressed in the first 30 seconds. Being perceived as empathetic and caring provides greater opportunity for the message to be accepted by the receiver.
Competence. Obviously education, position title and organisational roles are quick ways to indicate expertise. Previous experience and demonstrated abilities in the current situation enhance the perception of competence.
Honesty. Convey all the relevant information. If the spokesperson is prevented from passing on certain information then it helps to explain why, e.g. “We don’t have that information at this stage”, etc.
Communication in a crisis should follow the principles of risk communication. Organisations need to be open, accessible and willing to respond as much as possible to those seeking information.
Another thing is not to over-reassure. The objective is not to soothe, but to express accurate, calm concern. In fact, it is better to over-estimate the problem and then be able to say that the situation is better than first thought.
Acknowledge uncertainty. Tell only what you know. Show your distress and acknowledge your audience’s distress thus: “It must be frustrating to hear that we don’t have the answer to that question right now.…”
Organisations in crisis should also emphasise that a process is in place to learn more. Describe that process in simple terms.
Organisations in crisis should be regretful, not defensive. Say, “We are sorry….” when acknowledging problems or failures. Express wishes. Say, “I wish our answers were more definitive.”
Prepare messages in advance. A crisis jams up every action into an urgent time frame. There is not enough time to perform actions properly. Therefore it makes sense to do as much preparation in advance as possible.
Kim Harrison, a renowned authority on public relations educates that one of the crucial communication tasks is the preparation of holding statements in the initial stages while waiting for more definitive information to be available.
This task can be helped immeasurably by preparing a sizeable proportion of such statements ahead of time from a standard format. Several versions of a statement can be prepared for adaptation as required. It is surprising how much of a statement can be written, leaving only a few spaces that need to be filled in. The statements must not contain any inaccuracies or speculation.
The statements should just state the known facts and incorporate key messages such as: “We are sorry the event happened, we are extremely concerned, and we are doing everything possible to contain the effects of the crisis”; “Not all the relevant details are available at this time. But investigation is underway. A spokesperson will be available to comment and provide an update later.”
This effort shows willingness to provide accurate information openly and regularly. The organisation makes no comment on the question of legal responsibility for the incident. That is best left to the proper investigation by the authorities.
Some people are concerned that saying “sorry” and expressing regret will leave them exposed to possible legal action. There is no legal liability incurred in saying “sorry” – and aggrieved people will be much more forgiving.
There are steps an organisation can take to prevent a crisis, quickly stop the crisis, or even create a positive opportunity from it. Let us examine some of them.
Have a plan through anticipation
This is one of the strategies of forestalling a crisis. Anticipate every possible crisis and ask “What if …?” for every possible incident and the scenario that can be envisaged. Organise a crisis management and communications team, and then create a detailed plan to communicate and be in a position to control the message to the media and the public in general.
Immediacy of response is another step. When a crisis strikes, respond immediately. Have the spokesperson prepared and ready to go. Follow the steps outlined in the crisis communication plan and put the team into action. The first few hours are most important in establishing credibility and building public trust and believability. René Henry, a renowned business communication expert says you need to eliminate “No comments” from your vocabulary. “In a crisis, perception is stronger than reality and emotion stronger than fact. When those responsible do not communicate, the crisis still gets played out …,” adds Henry.
Avoid talking too much
Another strategy is to avoid talking too much. Just the opposite of keeping quiet, do not overtalk or release information without having all of the facts. Never speculate on what may or may not be happening. Ensure you analyse each situation for its newsworthiness. Some information may not warrant media attention. You do not have to answer every question. Just because a question is asked does not mean you have to answer, but you should have some kind of response.
In any crisis, there are questions that you simply cannot or should not answer. Hypothetical questions, proprietary questions and speculative questions should be politely avoided. The spokesperson needs to be trained and reminded that he or she cannot be expected to know the answer to every question asked. But he should not withhold information that should be disclosed.
Tell the truth at all times
Telling the truth at all times constitutes another strategy of crisis prevention or management. It is all right to say “I don’t know” if you do not have the facts. The public will respect you for that, and know that you are telling the truth. According to a survey conducted by Porter/Novelli, a public relations firm, 95 per cent of people are more offended about a company lying about the crisis than the crisis itself.
If there is a problem, admit it. Be accountable and accept responsibility. Research shows that in October 2004, Citigroup had banking problems in Japan because of ethical violations and lax controls that may have led to money laundering.
Charles Prince, chairman and CEO, flew to Tokyo and with Douglas Peterson, CEO of Citibank Japan, confronted what happened by publicly apologising and making amends, Japanese-style. A photograph of the two men bowing deeply, bent forwards from the waist and heads lowered, was transmitted around the world. Prince then fired three top executives responsible for the violations.
Cover-ups never work because today almost anyone can disseminate information quickly and widely on the Internet, where it can be read by millions of people.
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GOKE ILESANMI, Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is a Certified Public Speaker/Emcee, Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker, Career Management Coach, Renowned Book Reviewer, Corporate Leadership Expert and Editorial Consultant.
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