By Goke Ilesanmi
Last week, we said corporate organisations are vulnerable to crises. We expatiated that 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.
We stressed that the good news is that organisations can better cope with crises if they have established sound and long-term relationship with stakeholders. We asserted that 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.
Finally, we said organisations in crisis should be remorseful not defensive. We added 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.
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 here 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
Having a plan through anticipation 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 communication 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 over-talk 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 might 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.
Futility of cover-ups
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.
PS: For those making inquiries about our Public Speaking, Business Presentation and Professional Writing Skills programme, please visit the website indicated on this page for details.
GOKE ILESANMI (FIIM, FIMC, CMC), CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Professional Public Speaker, Career Mgt Coach and Certified Mgt Consultant. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.
Tel: 08055068773; 08187499425