In an ideal world, a crisis would make an appointment. It would announce its imminent arrival several weeks in advance, giving organizations plenty of time to understand its potential impact and accordingly prepare for communicating with stakeholders.
By the time the crisis arrived, the organization would have a management plan that included thoughtful messaging developed to prevent far-reaching, long-lasting, and costly consequences.
Any organization that has been through a crisis knows that is not how crises operate. Crises arrive unannounced. They disrupt normal operations, and they can cause widespread problems.
Still, unannounced does not have to mean unanticipated.
The odds that your business will face a crisis are high. Fully 69% of business leaders report experiencing at least one crisis during a five-year period, according to the PwC 2021 Global Crisis Survey. The average number of crises during such a period is three.
Failing to prepare a crisis management plan means ignoring hard facts. The crisis will come, unannounced and unapologetic, and it will need to be addressed. Having a crisis management plan that includes a strong crisis communication component is essential for any business.
Here are four things we learned from 2022 regarding crisis communications.
1. A timely plan avoids costly fallout
Organizations should be thoughtful when developing a crisis communications plan, but they should not be slow.
By being well-prepared ahead of time, organizations can communicate in a way that keeps the crisis from getting out of hand. In some cases, timely communication will dramatically decrease the negative impact of a crisis.
In 2022, Southwest Airlines provided a telling illustration of what can happen when crisis communications are not effective. When severe storms in late 2022 challenged its normal operations, Southwest was forced to navigate a chaotic crisis situation. Its communication during the crisis drew sharp criticism. from industry experts. The fallout, which has resulted in lawsuits and threats of government fines, could end up costing the airline more than $800 million.
2. Communication should be calm and composed
Throughout much of 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky provided a master class on crisis communications. Zelensky, a one-time TV actor and comedian, was thrown into the global spotlight as he led his nation in defending itself against invasion from Russia. He has handled the situation remarkably well despite only entering the presidency and political scene in 2019.
Engaging in a war with a world superpower definitely qualifies as a crisis. Zelensky's communication regarding the war has consistently been calm and composed while projecting passion and urgency. As a result, he has unified his nation, instilled in them hope for the future, and attracted the attention and support of key allies around the world.
3. When you are wrong, admit it
In the ideal world where crises make appointments, organizations never make mistakes. In the real world, however, a crisis can often be the result of a failure on the part of the organization. When that happens, honesty is always the best policy.
Organizations that lie, even about something minimal, chip away at the trust they have built with their stakeholders.
Rather than offering excuses, shifting blame, or avoiding an issue, organizations should be honest and take ownership of their part in the crisis. Failure to do so leaves employees, consumers, and investors questioning the organization's integrity. In many cases, it just makes a bad situation worse.
When the business messaging app Slack experienced a major service disruption in 2022, it elected for honesty in its crisis communications, telling its users, "Sorry we can't be more specific—this is one of those cases where we don't know what's gone wrong either." It then provided regular updates on progress until the problem was resolved the next day.
Overall, Slack remained authentic throughout its outage, even making fun of itself during its crisis response. Its approach contained the crisis, keeping it strictly a short-term issue for its users rather than a problematic media opportunity. As a result, Slack's loyal users stayed committed to the organization.
4. Staying quiet makes it worse
Waiting for things to blow over is not an effective crisis communications plan; nor is pretending that nothing is wrong. Case study after case study shows that staying quiet about a crisis will make it worse.
Anyone looking for an example of how avoiding an issue can go horribly wrong can look at FIFA's communications regarding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Criticisms about human rights violations, LGBTQ+ issues, and corruption were common leading up to the tournament. FIFA's response, however, was limited to a defensive speech delivered by FIFA's president on the eve of the World Cup.
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When a crisis comes, people will talk. The quicker the organization is to communicate, the better chance it has of controlling the conversation.
A crisis communications plan is the key to ensuring that your organization is ready to provide a clear, timely, and authentic response to any crisis.
More Resources on Crisis Communications
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