If you were looking for a prime example of how not to manage crisis communications – look no further than Optus. Since the news of its data leak broke Optus has failed at every turn to communicate adequately with impacted customers, with government agencies trying to assist, and with media reporting on the story.

Whether it is a data breach or some other sort of crisis that involves a company responding in a timely way, it highlights the vital importance of having an issues management playbook and ensuring it is not only up to date but that the appropriate executives are briefed on it.

There are some basics of issues and crisis management communications that cannot be ignored. They are: don’t cover up; don’t understate the problems; keep control of communications (initially – by being the first to say anything); and finally, apologise, apologise, apologise.

All organisations should have “what if?” issues management plans which include, at the very least, the messages that will be sent to customers – or in the case of financial advisers, to clients – in the event of a crisis.

Although it may not be possible to predict exactly what type of crisis might engulf a financial planning firm. It is possible to be prepared for many eventualities with a crisis plan.

Prepare for all scenarios

After considering the different risks your company faces, develop a contingency plan for each risk and regularly review and update it. The plan should identify:

  • Which stakeholders are affected and to what extent;
  • The messaging of what the incident was and the steps to fix it;
  • The employees’ roles and responsibilities for which part of the plan’s execution. This includes nominated spokespeople for media and public interactions. In this preparation phase it may be necessary to arrange training, for example media training, for nominated spokespersons; and
  • The channels of communication for each stakeholder as well as the frequency of communication.

Be the first to say it

As soon as a crisis happens, ensure you are the first to communicate the issue to clients, relevant authorities and the media. And stay on the front foot with any communications that follows. This does not necessarily mean exposing every single detail. But it is important to ask yourself whether it is likely the information will end up in the public domain (it nearly always does), and if so, it is best if it comes first from the company.

Keeping all stakeholders and influencers informed is vital. This is especially true for employees of a company. If they are accurately informed about the situation, they will know what to say to others if asked.

Be honest, be humble and apologise

What you communicate and how you communicate is important. Honesty truly is the best policy with crisis communications and issues management. Sharing only part of the story, covering up, misleading or deceiving, are all likely to extend interest in the issue and will put the organisation on the back foot when the true facts are exposed.

If it’s likely information will end up in the public domain, it’s nearly always best to be the first to say it. Although not always an option popular with lawyers and compliance teams, we also recommend acknowledging the problem and apologising.

Importantly however, you must include details on the steps being taken to correct the issue – and this is a great defence against further criticism. This needs to be followed up with information on what steps are being taken to prevent such problems occurring again in the future.