THE SHORT STORY
Sooner or later every company or organization faces situations that can develop into a crisis. Regardless of the background to the situation, it is important to act quickly, correctly and consistently.
The worst thing you can do is to stay away and avoid answering questions with the hope that everything will pass by itself. It is just as bad to go to counter-attack or lye, trying to beautify reality and reduce the problems.
The best thing you can do is to do right from the start and prepare yourself and the company. Analyze risks, exercise possible scenarios and educate senior management to meet the press.
Hampus Knutsson, who is a senior consultant at Prime Weber Shadwick in Stockholm and specializes in crisis management, gives his best advices in this post.
THE LONG STORY
Most companies occasionally find themselves in situations that can develop to a crisis wich can affect the confidence in the company and its brands. It can be more or less self-inflicted, through carelessness, lethargy or ignorance. Or occur entirely without the company’s fault, for example due to accidents or natural disasters.
But few companies have properly insured themselves against severe damage of the intangibles, by preparing and exercising various crisis scenarios.
However, there is much to be done to stand ready when – not if – the crisis comes.
If you do it right, it doesn’t just mean that you can get through the crisis relatively unharmed. There are examples showing that a well-managed crisis can even lift the brand.
On the other hand, unmanaged crises can have a devastating effect on the image of a company or its brands. Today, people are very much aware, have access to more information and can spread it further. Rapidly. This makes companies more vulnerable.
Communication vacuum is an effective breeding ground for rumors, and they have a tendency to grow and spread quickly.
In a survey, conducted a number of years ago, it was found that it took 22 minutes for a rumor, which started at the coffee machine on the ground floor, to reach up to the fifth floor of a company.
Rumors are often more interesting than the truth and people believe in what’s being said. In order to fight the rumors, it is important that the company speaks with one voice and that everyone gives the same version of what happened.
Some ways to be better prepared when the problems come are to:
* Plan for the worst possible scenario
* Analyze existing risks and threats
* Develop a crisis management plan where communication is integrated
* Media-train senior executives.
And when the crisis happens, you have to see the broad perspective and not just look at the present.
“Crises don’t happen very often. But when they do, you should have a devil’s lawyer by your side. That’s my role”, says Hampus Knutsson, who is a senior consultant at Prime Weber Shadwick in Stockholm and specializes in crisis management. Something that he also exercises for prevention with many of his clients.
He has also been operationally responsible (as communications manager) for the crisis management at the big media company Stampen, in connection with its corporate restructuring, which was the second largest in the history of Swedish business.
Hampus Knutsson emphasizes that the best advice he can still give is to make sure that no crises arise.
“All individuals, organizations, brands or companies have a ‘trust capital’. The more you live as you learn, the higher your capital”, he explains, suggesting that you should look at your organization in the same way as a person.
In daily life, you look out for cars – in both directions – before you cross the street, take care of yourself and your health, try to eat well, exercise and sleep enough. An enterprise must reason in a similar way. Don’t take any unnecessary risks in everyday life, even if you believe it’ll give you short-term profits.
People make mistakes. Errors always occur, sooner or later. But you have to deal with it so that it does not grow into a crisis.
“The best crisis management is to do right from the start. Then the risks are minimized, and you can avoid problems that are your responsibility”, he notes.
When you take responsibility for a mistake made right away, you can stop the crisis on an early stage.
“It is not the crisis in itself that determines if your trust capital disappears. It is the management of the crisis that determines it. Almost anything can happen. But if you handle it right, it doesn’t have to be that difficult. “
Hampus Knutsson explains that all crises are about a story. There is always some kind of a drama and you have to find out which this drama is.
The actors of media drama are basically always the same: the evil, the good, the victim and the expert.
And every time you are approached by media, you have to address some questions:
What is the drama?
Which role do I play?
If you realize that you have the role of the evil one, then you should act, professional and empathetic. Then the drama is reduced.
Common (and natural) reactions are to try to escape, go to counter attack or put the lid on. None of these options is recommended. They only lead to an increase in the drama.
Of course, one can feel that the press coverage is both unfair and exaggerated at times. And news stories are usually not completely neutral. They rarely also contain the whole truth.
“When working with crisis management, you can not only work with reality, but you also have to work with the image of reality”, Hampus Knutsson emphasizes, and adds that you have to have to concentrate on what you can influence. And as long as the media reports, you have to continue working.
“It is not the critical issues that overthrow a CEO or break an organization. It’s the lack of answers”, he emphasizes, listing four important points to cope with a media storm:
1. Act with decisiveness. This means that you always have to respond to the criticism, whether it is right or wrong. It is important to get to the stage where you direct the drama yourself.
2. Show professionalism and take responsibility. Think about the situation and figure out its roots.
“Am I hated for the right reason? In that case, the problem is connected to the organization. But, if I am hated for the wrong reason, it can be a communication problem”, explains Hampus Knutsson.
3. Show transparency. The faster you handle the problem, the less of the trust capital is lost. Openness means that everything you say must be true. However, you do not have to tell the whole truth.
4. Keep your target groups and stakeholders informed. And the information has to start internally.
Employees should always have information first.
“You should always peel an onion from the inside”, Hampus Knutsson explains, emphasizing that all stakeholders should receive the same information. But it should of course be adapted to the recipient. Not all information is of interest to everyone.
An early, concrete action is to formulate a document. Not more than one page. In this document you should note: your image of the problem, what you feel about it, what you do about it and what you think about the future.
Hampus Knutsson advises companies to produce three central documents as a basis for a crisis communication scheme.
These documents are: a list of the target groups, a message/press release that also includes the actions you take, and a communication schedule.
The workflow for the concrete work then looks like this:
1. Set the message
5. Follow up
“The same principles apply, whether it is a major national crisis, or a minor storm on an individual company,” Hampus Knutsson points out.