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.

It’s not just the CEO’s problem

Managing a crisis can become a full-time job and, depending on the type and size of the crisis, it can even involve several executives trying to resolve the problem. As tempting as it may be for a chief executive to quarantine the problem by acting alone – or with just a few inner circle executives deciding on the resolution of the issue in isolation – it is an approach that rarely works.

Bad decisions and poorly handled resolution implementation can be made without full access to all knowledge and information. Ensure you have identified in your plan a risk management team that crosses all necessary functions to ensure the issues and its resolutions are implemented across the organisation.

It’s especially critical that staff know the company story accurately (and they will probably know if what they’re told is true) so that they know what to say in their dealings with others.

Monitor the attitudes and reactions of all stakeholders, including your own

Social media makes this point especially important. Assess what information is out there and what people are saying. Make an effort to correct any misunderstandings and to communicate your point of view and messaging into every conversation.

Consider opening your own information centres on social media and to create a dedicated page on the company website – with a pointer from the home page – to ensure up to date information is always available.

Additionally, a common mistake that many make is to think the attitudes of other people, especially journalists, change in a crisis. It is easy to get overwhelmed by this notion and become defensive. The truth is that to a journalist, a story is a story. It’s best to keep your emotions to the side and focus on ensuring the right information is being communicated at the right time, and that internally, the steps are being taken to mitigate the issue are being undertaken.

Third parties

With most crises and issues, there are third parties involved and they may well be making their own statements. Keep in touch with other parties that might be involved, so you can influence their approaches and perhaps pre-empt any statement or follow up promptly.

Recognise the end of the crisis

It is important to recognise when the peak of the crisis has passed, and to avoid keeping it alive by sending unnecessary communication and continuing to think in crisis mode. Once the peak is over, it’s over.

Once clients have been communicated with, their problems rectified and step taken to ensure the event can’t happen again, the news cycle – and the media – will inevitably move on. And so should you.

Above all, it is important to ensure you have an issues management and crisis communications plan in place well before it is ever needed. Once you have this, revise it and update it regularly. Don’t wait for a crisis to happen to get this in order. Be proactive and seek professional assistance if needed to ensure your communications strategy is intact.

Claudia Pritchitt is director of PritchittBland Communications.

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