“Our actions define us”: Five things to avoid when responding to a crisis


Founder and chief executive of presentation studio Emma Bannister. Source: Supplied.

The words “I want my life back” thrust BP chief executive Tony Hayward into the spotlight for no good reason after the oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused the worst spill in US history. His reputation was forever tarnished as someone who just thought of himself and deflected responsibility for the 11 people who lost their lives.

Unfortunately, when the shit hits the fan, most companies or leaders seem to somehow add more fuel to the fire. It’s often left to the media or marketing department to try and mop up the spill or ‘spin it’ back in the organisation’s favour.

While most of us, thankfully, don’t need to deal with such devastating loss, things like job cuts, revenue declines and organisation restructures are still sensitive subjects and are all too common. Take Myer, for example, which continues to see poor sales results, a decrease in their stock prices and jobs slashed.

It is important to remember our actions define us, especially in difficult times.

Here are five things to avoid when you’re responding to a crisis.

1.Putting off a response

The longer you delay, the worse it gets. Period. When something bad happens, you have to address it immediately with all of your stakeholders. Gather the troops — anyone who is vital to the decision-making process or communication signoff and coordinate a plan of action. Collaboration is key here, as well as consistency in what you are all saying, in whatever form you are saying it to your audience, whether on email, TV or social media.

2. Avoiding the truth

Trust is at an all-time low, according to Edelman, a global communications marketing firm. Their 2018 survey revealed an overall decline in trust across the globe, especially in media and organisations, and in industries like finance. (Think of the royal commission into banking and superannuation misconduct last year.)

There is nothing worse than trying to cover up the truth. And once trust is gone, it is really hard to earn back because it’s so intangible.

Do you remember when CPA was forced to reveal the exorbitant salary of chief executive Alex Malley, which set off a chain of events that led to the resignation of the whole board?

Be honest, open and authentic, even if you’re announcing bad results to stakeholders.

3. Hiding behind a blanket statement

It is customary for the media department or a spokesperson to put out a blanket statement in response to something unfortunate. Yet this often makes things worse. What people really want to see is the person behind the problem — usually the chief executive or leader facing up to what has gone wrong. Emotion is crucial for engaging an audience and getting people back on board.

Telstra chief executive Andy Penn did this well when he fronted up to the cameras and announced yet another 8000 job losses. “I feel the weight of that responsibility very, very seriously. The impact on our people is absolutely the most difficult part of this,” he said.

4. Playing the blame game

Pointing the finger at others just makes you look bad. (You just have to watch the latest political leadership debate to see this.) As humans, we respect responsibility and accountability. People will trust you and like you more if you own up and say you’re at fault. Take ownership of your actions, don’t make up excuses. Your customers and clients want to know you know what the learnings are and you have a plan of action in place to move forward.

5. Focusing on the problem, not the solution

What are the next steps, timelines, milestones, and who is doing what by when? Don’t dwell on the problem, follow up with assurances something is being done! People want to see action.

Whatever, the situation, you don’t have long to address it. So having a clear contingency process in place prior is key to your success.

Any response to a crisis should be swift and informed, but the real skill lies in responding to the facts with clarity and dignity, so no one feels blamed or uncertain of the future.

NOW READ: “Get their name right”: The five biggest mistakes businesses make when doing their own PR

NOW READ: Four steps to get media coverage for your startup and become a PR pro


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