What you can learn from bad crisis management

Bad Crisis Management

This blog was written by Kristina Smith, Corporate Communication Specialist at Elevate Communication. Kristina is part of Elevate’s issues planning and crisis management team, working to uphold and repair corporate reputations. She also lectures and tutors on this at The University of Queensland.

The only thing to do is get prepared 

No-one ever expects a crisis will come knocking on their door—maybe that’s wishful thinking; maybe that’s because crises by their very nature are extreme but rare; maybe it’s because we just don’t have ‘time’ for a crisis and so the thought of its presence doesn’t enter our consciousness. Either way, crises happen and companies, just like yours, are affected. 

Before this sends you into a spiral of despair, I want to remind you of the fundamentals of crisis communication that you probably learnt as a child; remember the Guiding and Scouting motto: ‘Be prepared’. Elevate is a crisis communications agency as well as a PR, marketing, corporate communication, and digital engagement agency. At Elevate, our Corporate Communication team deal with crises every week and we’re well versed and well skilled in preparing companies to handle crisis escalations.   

First thing’s first, it’s all a matter of time 

Every minute of a crisis is under scrutiny—the luxury of time is one you don’t have during a crisis and it’s a luxury every company that comes to us in the midst of an escalating crisis wishes they had.  

Time condenses and activities that usually take hours to craft and days to approve and weeks to distribute to internal and external stakeholders now need to be drafted, approved, and distributed within the first few hours. I like to think of communications during a crisis as taking a communication campaign and intensifying it a hundred-fold, and that gives you some idea of what it’s like to work in crisis communication. 

With the truncation of time, complex decision-making is placed under enormous amounts of stress. You can’t percolate that thought and massage those messages—you need to be fast and the first thing that slips with speed is nuance and deep-thinking. 

Bad crisis management examples 

While self-preservation instinct has companies either being too slow in their response, forgetting to communicate with a key stakeholder, downplaying the potential of the crisis, or the worst of the worst, not commenting, a perception chasm starts to open. 

Who steps in to fill the void? Anyone with a voice who wants to speak! And the voice that fills that void might not have the correct information, might be pushing an agenda that is the antithesis of yours, or might alter your key stakeholders’ perceptions about you.  

Examples of issues and crises include: 

  • A major, sometimes global, situation, such as a global pandemic 
  • Supply chain issues, where retailers are facing issues from their supply chain partners and products  
  • Simple human errors can sometimes be the start of a major issue  
  • An attack on your organisation or major breech of code of conduct 
  • Cyber-attacks, data breeches and the associated issues
  • Leaders behaving badly or with a lack of good judgement  
  • Leaders and spokespeople being unprepared to address an emerging issue 
  • Decisions or actions that place others at risk. 

Don’t forget people 

Crisis management is all about time and people. Time truncates, stakes are high and the result of those 2 factors is that your people feel stress. 

When people are stressed, they do strange things. They also experience physical changes that they have no control over. Stress activates the amygdala and this part of the brain puts you into a flight, fight, or freeze response—none of which is helpful during a corporate crisis. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and elevates blood pressure; cortisol pumps the body with glucose. Both adrenaline and cortisol are very helpful if you are trying to outrun a cheetah; but both impede your decision-making ability—they effect cognition and concentration and are very unhelpful in a corporate setting. 

During a crisis, our bodies are actively working against us.  

Key learnings  

  1. Don’t go it alone—crisis management specialists can view your situation from all angles and prompt you to think about reactions from your clients, customers, stakeholders, and employees that you may not anticipate. 
  2. Know who you need to know—know who your key stakeholders are (including government regulators) and know how to contact them and who will make that contact in the time of a crisis.
  3. Be prepared—give yourself time to tweak pre-prepared materials rather than start from scratch and suffer the effects of your amygdala going into overdrive.
  4. Be trained—media train your spokespeople so that they know how to respond to the hard questions. 
  5. Use any crisis to better the business—a crisis will spotlight the processes and policies that could be improved and provides business owners with an opportunity to better their business.
  6. Ensure your response matches the crisis—don’t enflame a crisis; but don’t downplay the situation either; it’s a balancing act and one Elevate is well versed in.
  7. If you would like to get prepared with your issue management communications plan or find yourself facing cybersecurity issues or if you’re in the middle of a corporate crisis, please get in touch and our Corporate Communication crisis management team will quickly be in touch.  

Contact Elevate’s General Manager Lee McLean at lee@elevatecom.com.au for more information. 

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