As a PR consultant with over 25 years of experience, I have been reviewing the kinds of crises that I’ve seen and been involved with over the years, and the principles that have worked when handling them.
“Staff” is as good a place as any to begin examining common ignition points for problems – and within the term ‘staff’, we should include temporary staff, franchisees, and key project partners/contractors.
If they’re working in our name, whether we’re legally responsible for them or not, in the court of public opinion they’re ours, and in any case, we owe a duty of care to them as well as to our customers.
Whilst possibly the most disruptive internally, people who leave an organisation taking data and/or customers is perhaps the easiest to deal with in crisis terms. Firstly there are contracts in place, although willingness to bring legal actions varies with circumstance. Quite aside from the expense, ‘going legal’ can often serve to draw additional external attention to an internal problem. and create bad will with former customers who’ve chosen to move with said staff member.
(Handling leavers well is, of course, a better option.)
If data is removed, companies should already have processes in place thanks to GDPR. (Anyone unsure about their processes or how to create them may find a Facebook group – GDPR Shared Resources – a great source of information and a hub of knowledgeable people.) Rumours and FUD* spread by leavers are harder to challenge, but for the most part a short period of increased PR combined with taking any appropriate action to tackle things directly (as well, of course, as internally changing anything with a ring of truth if possible) will help dissipate the ‘crisis’.
From experience, this type of crisis, unless it’s a case of ‘whistle blowing’, generally feels worse internally than it does to the outside world. It’s worth remembering this when handling it.
Employees who’ve done something outside of work (or their family members)
This kind of crisis can be the hardest to predict, and often seem the most unfair to have to handle. Maybe someone’s been involved in a fatal fight, had an accident, or been involved with a scam. It can extend to families (eg Mass murderer/child killer X whose father has worked for [your organisation] for ten years),
It’s also fairly hard to manage because fact finding will be hard because you’re not directly involved. Police and legal bodies are often involved which may put limits on what you can say/do and access to information; the workplace may be disrupted as tongues, naturally, wg and opinions re formed; and there will be a need to balance the needs and rights of the employee with the needs of the company’s reputation.
My experience has generally been that careful, considered, almost ‘locked down’ communication – both internal and external – is an absolute essential, often more internally than externally, whilst still listening to and engaging with anyone directly affected.
If you have to handle the media, call in professionals. Emotions will run high, and having a third party offer perspective will be invaluable for discussing options and responses.
Employees who do something at work
When something wrong’s been done in your name or in your office, you have no choice but to tackle it – and fast. The challenge with crises of this type is that fact finding will be hard – there is no vested interest in telling the truth.
Extreme caution needs using when responding to requests for information, and whilst media and stakeholders may be baying for it, it’s often advisable to use holding statements liberally. Better to be slated for saying too little in the early stages than for issuing false information.
If what an employee has been doing from your office has nothing to do with work (perhaps using the company mail for drugs deliveries or the company Internet for grooming), you still, unfortunately have a problem. You didn’t ask for it, but no-one ever does.
You are going to need to balance the employees rights with the crisis that’s bubbling around you, as well as any victims.
In this instance, knowing your legal position, first and foremost, is essential, and taking advice on what you can and cannot legally say is vital (Although you may want to protect your employee, suspending on full pay pending investigation is often the safest option.)
Is it possible to formulate responses to crises? Whilst some people love them, I say’not really’, although I have had this requested by clients. Each situation is unique, but, based on experience, prescribed behaviours and principles are way more useful than dictated responses.
It’s the investigation, establishing the truth of the situation, understanding what’s happened, that will help decide the steps you take and help to know what to prioritise.
Prevention is always better than a cure. Having a crisis prevention plan in place can stop things escalating, or even nip a potential crisis in the bud.
Can a crisis be good for you?
A well handled crisis can leave you far stronger than you were before it happened. The fuss can raise your brand awareness, and whilst it may be considered a bad thing in the eye of the storm, it makes your brand a familiar one.
Brand values are a consideration – if your organisation is edgy and ‘out there’, breaking all the rules, a staff member who has insulted will be less of a problem than for a Quaker organisation trading on its goodness, for example. If you’re a ‘slag of a snack’ or a gambling site, people’s expectations will be far lower than someone trading on a higher moral platform.
Links back and traffic to your website can help somewhat with Google natural search, which never hurts (and negative PR has been deliberately used on many occasions by SEO specialists for just this reason).
After a crisis it pays – perhaps after a short gap – to ramp up positive PR for a while to turn opinions around and so that negative publicity slips down the Google rankings (that sounds more cynical than it’s intended to be) — and, of course to use any recent ‘fame’ to capitalise on media recognitions/interest.
It rarely. however, pays to leave loose ends. They will almost always come back and bite you later.
So depending upon circumstances, yes, it’s possible to come out shining. To date I’ve rarely had a crisis where something good fails to emerge for the business. A well handled, honestly lead crisis management campaign can win hearts and minds as easily as they were challenged in the first place.
And, of course, prevention and planning will make any crisis far easier to deal with.
*FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt
Originally published October 2018. Moved to new blog, January 2020