Crises could strike an organisation at any time. If managed correctly, an organisation can use the event as an opportunity to sustain or build a positive reputation. It is crucial for all organisations to be prepared for any crisis or disaster in order to manage the effect thereof.

Lara de Stadler and Zydelia Kleinhans, Account Co-ordinators at Reputation Matters (PRISA PRISM Award Winners and TopSEO for 2012) who have recently completed their BCom Communication Management Honours degrees Cum Laude at the University of Pretoria, specialising in Crisis Communication, explain that each crises needs to be managed in a unique way but one aspect is always essential during a crisis, namely the need for effective communication.

Why is effective Crisis Communication so important?

The business landscape is changing and organisations are progressively moving towards better corporate governance and increased stakeholder inclusivity. The emergence of active consumers (accentuated by social media), who hold an organisation accountable for its actions, as well as the speed at which news travels via online platforms has increased the need for a timely response when an organisation finds itself experiencing a crisis.

De Stadler and Kleinhans share the top seven tips for effective crisis communication, invaluable to any proactive organisation, to transform a crisis into an opportunity:

1) PLAN AHEAD, BE PREPARED for the unexpected.

It’s Murphy’s Law, “whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way”, especially if you’re not prepared.

It is highly recommended for an organisation to identify any possible crises that could occur in the future. Strategic thinking and planning is essential and should be applied to all spheres of decision-making as all future outcomes need to be taken into account. Chaos reigns when a crisis unfolds, all affected stakeholders want answers and it is therefore imperative to be prepared and have a comprehensive crisis communication strategy in place before the crisis occurs. This will enable all internal stakeholders to know exactly who should communicate what to whom and at what time. The effectiveness of the plan should be tested. This can be done by practicing potential future crisis situations consisting of real-life scenarios and interviews with journalists in order to identify potential adjustments to be made to the plan.

When questions are asked, the best informed person about the crisis situation should be the one to communicate it. It is not necessary for every internal stakeholder to communicate about the crisis; there should be only one or two dedicated people who deal with the media so as not to relay a different message. It is, however, important to ensure that all internal stakeholders are able to communicate effectively with the media should a crisis within their field of expertise occur.  Media training is a great investment in crisis communication planning as it helps equip the team with media management skills, giving them credibility and authority. If a person of authority speaks to the media, it is a good indication of confidence, that the organisation does not have any hidden agendas and that it is taking the situation seriously by taking ownership. Never ‘mud sling’ or shift the blame – this will lead to more negative coverage and cause unnecessary arguments.

2) BE RESPONSIVE AND TIMELY -.Keep your stakeholders in the loop. Tell them all that you know and do it quickly – before they have an opportunity to jump to conclusions or search for other sources that may have incorrect information. Never keep quiet but don’t speculate or give unverified facts either. ‘No comment’ is a big no-no, and is in fact a comment! Rather state that you are investigating the situation and will provide information as soon as it is made available.

3) KEEP YOUR STAKEHOLDERS UPDATED – Be honest, open and transparent. Keep stakeholders informed about the crisis that is taking place and the various actions that are being taken. Engaging with stakeholders, especially during a crisis, could lead to positive long-term relationships with them. As far as possible, include stakeholders (especially employees) in the organisation’s decisions and the way forward – ask them for their inputs, and it will become a shared problem that they feel they need to help your organisation solve.

If used correctly, social media can be a great tool too, when engaging with stakeholders. However, one needs to be mindful that with the emergence of social media and the instantaneous power of online news platforms, a timely response is key. Active consumers weigh up an organisation’s reputation before making purchasing decisions. Should the organisation not respond in a timely manner, this could influence the buying behaviour or loyalty of these consumers.

4) STICK TO YOUR GUNS – Stay true to the company’s’ values, and vision and mission, especially when communicating during a crisis. Reiterate your corporate values, if these have been compromised during a crisis.

5) BE EMPATHETIC – Be sure to communicate that your organisation is invested in the correction and alleviation of the problem. The organisation needs to acknowledge that it is empathetic towards all stakeholders influenced negatively by the crisis and should apologise where relevant to gain trust back. Accordingly, stakeholders will be more open to accepting apologies from the organisation.

6) KEEP IT SIMPLE – The spokesperson for the organisation should not analyse or incessantly explain the situation. Using complicated terms and industry related jargon can confuse stakeholders and it will give the impression that the organisation is trying to hide the truth by being overly vague or complicated. Simple messages get the main points across and provide the best opportunity for being understood. It is also important to choose the right communication channels and adapt messages according to each stakeholder group in order to properly communicate with the stakeholders.

7) TAKE ACTION and make sure that the stakeholders know about it. An organisation should communicate their efforts to alleviate the problem and follow through. The same crisis should never occur in an organisation twice. It is important for an organisation to communicate to its stakeholders that it has learnt from the mistakes and is taking the necessary steps to prevent the same issue from occurring again.

For more in-depth tips and pointers about Crisis Communication, Reputation Matters is able to assist your organisation to develop a detailed crisis communication strategy. Reputation Matters also offers media training to equip organisations with the necessary tools to weather the unpredictable strike of a crisis storm and seize it as an opportunity.

For more information on managing and investing in your reputation, visit www.reputationmatters.co.za or call 021 790 0208. We are also on Facebook www.facebook.com/yourreputationmatters and Twitter @ReputationIsKey

About Reputation Matters

Reputation Matters is not just another PR company, we are so much more! We measure five core dimensions of the organisation using our unique RepudometerTM research tool to understand what is building or breaking down the reputation. We have been looking after reputations for the past nine years, with at least a threefold return on investment for our clients. Reputation Matters joined ECCO International Communications Network in 2012 and represents the network in South Africa.