Reboot – communicating in a crisis

In recent weeks there have been a string of IT related failures that have sparked criticism, particularly from the users left out in the cold. Yesterday (11 July) it was O2 and the BBC website but before that we have had the impact of the crisis for Natwest. And of course no-one can forget the disaster that was the Blackberry failure last year.

The starting point for any company has to be to try to avoid the IT collapse that will lead to annoyed customers looking for compensation and being vocal and critical. In the case of Natwest if, as has been reported, the failure was caused by a system change then they should have had a fall back plan for any problems. All companies need to have as robust an IT system as possible.

But despite best efforts there will always be times when things go wrong. As is often written it is how organisations cope with disaster that matters. Customers are more likely to be sympathetic if the communication about the incident or issue is effective. There are some key elements that I believe are important to communication in a crisis.

1. Be open about the issue as early as possible – don’t try to hide or cover up the issue. With the rise of social media there is no opportunity to sweep things under the carpet. Even if the journalists don’t find out about the issue, those using social networks will and the impact of appearing to try to hide the issue will be immense.

2. Explain what has happened and what is being done about it – people need to understand what the issue is and more importantly the plan to deal with it. If you have been affected you want to know how quickly the issue will be dealt with, and want to feel that it is being treated extremely seriously.

3. Use a spokesperson who is comfortable with the media and presenting the right image – how they say something is as important as what they are saying. The person dealing with the media needs to be the same throughout the whole of the incident. This can be really time-consuming if the incidents go on for an extended period of time. They will be the face of the organisation in the crisis.

4. Speak often – once you have started the communication about the issue you need to keep it going throughout. This means regular updates to the media and heavy monitoring and engagement through social networks. Being proactive is essential.

5. Invest time and resources – there is no substitute for communication professionals who will work round the clock to manage the impact on the organisation’s reputation. And it needs to be 24 hours a day and seven days a week until the situation has been resolved. Even after it has been concluded the work of the communication team will need to continue at a fast pace until a suitable time when the issue has ceased to be in the headlines.

Obviously there is a lot more that I could say and with every incident there are many factors including what is happening at the same time, who is affected and the time it takes to deal with, that will determine the communication activity required. Could Natwest, O2 and Blackberry have done things differently? I am sure they would admit they could, and hopefully they have learned from it. For the rest of us in communication roles we need to consider our own emergency plans and whether we are ready to face the next crisis.

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