Excellent crisis communications can help turn a crisis into an opportunity

Crisis communications. Transgender, taking the knee, doping and that’s before we even add Covid into the mix. The athletes going to the Tokyo Olympics face unprecedented challenges. The record haul of 67 medals at the Rio Olympics means Team GB faces the additional challenge of living up to what it has achieved before. If Yorkshire was a country our 14 medals would have ranked us 16th in the medal tables at the 2016 Rio Olympics. We were 12th in 2012.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had the privilege of working with the CEOs and heads of communications of many of the British teams heading to the Tokyo Olympics. I’ve been running crisis communications training to help them prepare for the many risks they will face at this year’s delayed Olympic Games.

In a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity every business and organisation also faces risks, issues and challenges that threaten their operations and reputations. Financial ratings firm Ocean Tomo’s research reveals 84% of a company’s market value is in intangible assets. One of the most valuable of these is reputation. Investor Warren Buffett famously said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Crisis communications planning

The commercial and operational importance of reputation and relationships are why it is essential that businesses invest in effective crisis communications preparation and planning. Most businesses recognise it is essential to invest in professional advice in order to mitigate the reputational risk and use challenging issues to unlock new opportunities. It is why the British Olympics teams invested in crisis communications training. Leaders who are reluctant to invest need to stop thinking of it as an optional cost related to marketing or promotion, but a business critical essential investment on a par with legal counsel or business insurance. It requires different skills and expertise to provide counsel on crisis communications than it does for traditional public relations and marketing communications.

Examples of crises abound. Brewdog’s Punks with Purpose attacking its employment practices, Prince Andrew’s botched Newsnight interview, United Airlines dragging a screaming passenger from a plane, Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, Thomas Cook’s failure over the carbon monoxide poisoning of children in Cyprus. PRovoke Media publishes an excellent report every January on the Top 20 Crises of the previous year.

It’s easy to share examples like that of businesses, individuals or organisations that got crisis communications wrong, but much harder to share examples of those that got it right. You will never know about the best crisis communications because it will have been so effective it ensured the issue never became a big negative news story or social media storm. My favourite personal case studies with my clients are the ones I can’t tell you much about becasue we successfully prevented an issue from becoming a crisis.

A rare example of a company that turned an operational crisis into an opportunity was KFC’s well-planned, effectively implemented response to running out of chicken. FCK we’re sorry worked.  

KFC understood that people are at the heart of successful crisis communications. It apologised and meant it. There are some fundamental principles of effective crisis communications. You act quickly. You gather the facts. You tell the truth. You express emotions and empathy. Above all you act. You must prove your words with deeds.

Often there will be tensions between the counsel you receive from your legal advisers and your public relations advisers. Lawyers too often err on the side of secrecy and obfuscation. They too often prioritise the short-term implications of the case in front of them and minimise the long-term commercial damage to reputation and relationships. The Arthur W Page Society’s seven principles of crisis management stress that you must manage for tomorrow.

It also says you should remain calm, patient and good humoured. It is hard to do this unless you’ve invested in making sure you are prepared. A common mistake is when leaders either dismiss an issue thinking it will blow over or express frustration that they are being unfairly victimised.

Crisis communications training

By doing crisis communications training the British Olympics teams recognised the importance of preparation. If you want to protect your business then the time to prepare for a crisis is now, before the multiple risks you face turn into issues that become crises resulting in operational or financial damage.

Why not find out more about how Stuart Bruce Associates can help you with crisis communications training, creating or reviewing your crisis communications plan or even with managing a live issue or crisis. You can book a free 15-minute video chat to see how I can help you.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Voices section of Yorkshire Post Business on 13 July 2021. It is not available online.

You can now listen to this blog post on my PR Futurist podcast. It uses a voice AI tool called Lovo AI to read the blog and add background music for the introduction.