3 Apr 2020

As political activist Thomas Paine said back in the 18th century, “These are times that try men’s souls.” We are living through something truly unprecedented. Many organisations are dealing with a crisis situation for the first time.

Gavin Megaw is one of the UK’s leading crisis experts and managing director of Hanover’s corporate comms and brand division. Here’s what he had to say on keeping calm in times of crisis.

For an organisation that has never had to deal with a crisis situation before now, where should they start?

Oftentimes, when we see businesses responding to crises, they make knee-jerk or short term responses. The art of handling a crisis isn’t about being short term. Instead your response should be totally rooted in your core purpose, mission, vision and values as a business.

There are three key steps that every organisation should take to build a considered approach to crisis management:

1. Set a clear objective for what you want to achieve with your crisis response. For example, do you want to maintain your reputation with your customer base? Or do you want to reduce the impact of the crisis on your customer base? Agree your objective. All the comms that fall out of this – either for internal or external audiences or both – should match the objective and be consistent with your underlying purpose, mission, vision and values.

2. Align all your comms with your objective. Once the objective has been set, it’s critical that every single piece of comms aligns with this objective. There can’t be any divergence from this core objective. Look at the comms you’re building and make sure they are in line with your existing set of values and tonality. When companies get it wrong the worst case can happen – which is that your crisis response generates a new crisis. You’ll avoid this by putting your values and objectives at the heart of the response.

3. Deliver your message proactively to all your stakeholders. Every business has multiple audiences. From customers to collaborators, partners to peers, shareholders to policymakers. The trick is to make sure these people hear the response from you. Use multiple channels – whether that’s email, phone calls, online channels or face to face. Provide background and context on why you are handling the crisis response in the way you are.

The success of an organisation is built on the strength of its reputation. Well-run companies don’t have poor reputations. So a crisis is also an opportunity to look at the reputation gap in your business. This is essentially the gap that exists between what you say and what you do (sometimes also known as the ‘value-action gap’).

In a crisis, the bigger this gap the more exposed you are. However when you put reputation at the heart of your business, you can protect yourself and your customers. Reputation should be tracked and reported (you can do this in a number of ways by for example tracking NPS, customer complaints, sentiment, press mentions etc).

Once you’re tracking reputation, you can fix issues, report clearly to your board or investors, stay accountable to your customers, and build advocates. Track your reputation relative to your values – how well are you really living up to them? There are some infamous examples of the reputation gap throughout modern business history – for example one of Enron’s company values was integrity!

Warren Buffett famously said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” I totally disagree. You can’t wreck a reputation in five minutes. An example of this came from BP and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP made some missteps in their crisis response to the oil spill, but that’s not what ruined their reputation. It was years and years of not being mindful of their reputation, and allowing the reputation gap to widen over a long period which spelt disaster for them. It’s easy to say it was their crisis response that destroyed their reputation at that particular moment in time but in reality the issues started years earlier.

What’s the role of the CEO in crisis comms? What advice would you give them? Should they always be the spokesperson?

The CEO must be front and centre in the crisis response. But they shouldn’t always be the spokesperson. If you have someone inside the business who’s more adept with comms, they could be the spokesperson. There are so many other things a CEO needs to be doing at this time – such as looking after customers, liaising with the board, talking to partners, and coordinating the overall crisis response. The CEO’s role is to lead on setting the crisis comms objective, work with the team to craft the message and then make sure it gets rolled out to all audiences.

How can technology tools and digital channels help in a crisis?

How you use tech at a time like this should go back to values and the prioritisation of the audiences who matter most. You should speak to people via the channels that you already know work. Talking to The Times or The WSJ won’t necessarily get your message to your key customers but other channels may – whether those are closed or open online channels. Understand what channels work for you as a business and use those. And critically again, make sure the message relates back to your values.

How should you adapt your response dependent on the type of crisis occurring?

The best guidance is to be calm and quick. Once you’ve set your objective upfront, direct the response according to the audiences which matter the most. A more salient point is how you change your approach as needed. Track and monitor whether your response is working against the objectives you set. For example, your objective might be to reduce the news cycle (let’s say for an embarrassing story). Tracking this is key for understanding whether you’ve been successful.

How do you tread the line between being pragmatic, supportive or opportunistic in a crisis?

Go back to your values and purpose. Ask people how you can help. If a macro crisis is occurring (like it is right now) and you have a role to play, you should do it. Match the needs of the community you serve. This will help the community and ultimately raise your reputation.

How do you cut through fake news?

The only reason fake news exists is because the establishment have got stuck in delivering comms in a way that doesn’t work. Business, politics and the media have trained everyone up to bridge and pivot from questions. Witness any politician doing this when asked a question they don’t want to answer, and then pivoting to the message they actually want to deliver.

This means when spokespeople provide comment, we don’t remember a word they said because they haven’t answered the real question. The result of this is lost trust and people going elsewhere (like social networks) to get news – which is often fake.

We need to change this entire mindset – don’t shy away from the question. Answer it in a way that is authentic, engaging and fits your values. Use the same technique internally as well as externally. The art of crisis comms is all about being clear, concise and compelling.

Please contact Gavin Megaw, Managing Director of Corporate and Brand, to discuss how Hanover can help protect your organisation’s reputation. gmegaw@hanovercomms.com.