Blowtorch of a crisis can unravel reputation


April 29, 2020


Perspectives On Change

“Without a responsible public and media response, a company’s reputation can unravel almost instantly.”

Blowtorch of a crisis can unravel reputation

While the timing of a crisis is usually unexpected, anticipating a crisis and being prepared to manage it is crucial to avoiding reputational damage.

During a crisis, danger, fear and confusion are lurking and decision-making is fraught with challenges. When faced with serious threats, leaders and leadership teams can become stressed, reactive and sometimes combative. Add to this a level of scrutiny that often accompanies a crisis and you have a formula for serious reputational damage for any organisation left exposed.

A crisis or issue will by its nature evolve and change, often rapidly, and without a crystal ball it is almost impossible to determine exactly how an incident will unfold, particularly when you throw in the many variables that will exist on any particular day or at any given time. Much will be out of your control. So all of the things that you can control need to be well managed to provide stability around the crisis management process. This will allow headspace to figure out the curve-balls that will inevitably be thrown into the mix. Like the Dreamworld CEO telling the media she had phoned the family of a person who tragically died at the theme park, when she hadn’t. Like the BP CEO Tony Haywood who, after the biggest offshore oil spill in US history told the media “I’d like my life back”. Like Sco Mo taking a holiday in Hawaii during a bushfire crisis. These situations made the actual crisis so much worse and did lasting damage to reputations, both personal and organisational.

When the Dreamworld tragedy struck and four people were killed by a ride malfunction in 2016, CEO Deborah Thomas’ response was widely criticised. It became apparent as events unfolded that the organisation was unprepared to deal with the tragedy, and more particularly, with the scrutiny from the public and media. When this incident happened CEOs around the country called in their crisis management experts and dusted off their strategies. Many found that while they had well-oiled operational responses to likely incidents or accidents, they did not have a plan for how to respond to the public, the families and the media. And without a responsible public and media response, a company’s reputation can unravel almost instantly.

Communication is key during a crisis. A throwaway quote from the CEO, a train wreck media interview, a poorly worded email to families and staff or lack of information to key people will all result in a deepening crisis. Managing operational issues is important, but equally important is communication around what is being done, how the crisis is being managed and making sure your messaging is considered and consistent.Importantly, don’t ever think that an in-depth media interview as a crisis is unfolding is a good idea. Look no further than Prince Andrew for evidence of how disastrous that can be.

While most organisations will have enacted various forms of crisis, issues or risk management plans over the past few weeks, now is not the time to be complacent. Threat of a crisis always looms, and it is critical to sound management to continually revisit and update crisis management plans. This is especially the case when an unexpected event (like COVID-19) occurs and your organisation has just enacted systems and processes you many never have anticipated needing.

To ensure your organisation is always prepared to manage a crisis well, undertake the following five critical practices.

1.     Have a Crisis and Issues Management Strategy as well as a detailed Media andCommunications Strategy.

2.     Ensure the leadership team and key staff are trained in the execution of the strategies. Workshop real-life scenarios and responses.

3.     Ensure media spokespeople are well trained. Call in the experts for media training and ensure it is gruelling. Media can smell inexperience and will apply the blowtorch with ferocity.

4.     Learn from the mistakes of others and adjust your strategies accordingly.

5.     Be disciplined. Update your strategies annually, or after management of any crisis.