This summer’s Belgo-Dutch so-called ‘egg crisis’ is just another example of how ‘being prepared’ for a crisis in terms of communication, and having the right mind-set, is crucial to managing your reputation properly.
The Belgian food protection agency was slow in terms of communication, and it communicated in a highly bureaucratic and defensive manner.
We see this very often. When corporations or governmental organizations are hit with a crisis, they waste crucial time due to unstructured processes and a fear of “communicating too early”. Let me tell you a little secret: there is no such thing as “there is nothing to communicate about.”
1. It’s Always Better to have Something to Say
Being a corporation or governmental organization comes with responsibilities toward the public. One of these is that the public is completely entitled get an update or to be alerted when there is a potential risk. If you fail to do this from the moment you were aware of any risks, they will rightfully blame you for not being transparent and responsible.
Ask yourself this key question: will public opinion pardon us when they find out that we knew?
From the moment you even have any doubts about the answer, you should prepare a communication.
The general public does not expect that you will have all the answers right from the start. Your first communication should be about acknowledgment and showing that you are on top of things. Indeed, recommendations on behavior will also be expected. There are always ways of doing this, even with little information.
Let me share with you the template for a so called ‘holding statement’ that can be used in the first phase of a crisis:
The – very cliché – ground rule in crisis communication is: be prepared. Make sure that you have your template statements ready. Work on procedures.
2. Make Sure Your Tools are Up-To-Date and Tested
The key in crisis communication is speed. You have to take advantage of the first ‘golden’ hour. You must communicate before anyone else does it for you, and spreads messages you don’t control.
Believe me, you don’t want to waste time composing press lists based on old Excel-files, or getting frustrated due to the fact that you don’t understand why Outlook isn’t doing what it is supposed to do.
With crisis communication it makes your life abundental easier to have the right tools in place. Consider if a problem arises, do you then draft a press release and send one-by-one or BCC to your contacts? What if that BCC, due to the elevated situation, becomes a CC and now you have another problem on your hands.
Get a system in place with some drafted templates for situations you could see arising.
3. Invest in Friendship in Tempora Non Suspecto
The best time to make friends is when everything is working as it should. Answer this question honestly: who would you rather support?
The person you haven’t heard from in ages, or the friend you see from fairly often? It always surprises me how much empathy organizations or corporations expect from media and the public, when they didn’t make any effort at all to maintain relations in tempora non suspecto.
Will this always make a difference?
No. You may be surprised to see how few real friends you have, but even acquaintances will be more understanding during a crisis if you’ve maintained a good relationship with them beforehand.
4. Get the External View
Communication professionals working internally for a company or organization risk getting drowned in a situation.
They can lose the clear view of the events and themselves in details, and can get into a very defensive attitude.
One can easily prevent this by consulting externals. It’s a matter of focus. I can recommend contracting professionals that have a reputation for clear speech. You don’t want someone who will only confirm what you presume, you want a consultant that will also tell you what you don’t want to hear.
5. The "We've Made a Communication Error"- Excuse; The Bargaining Strategy
Too often, when companies mess things up in terms of operations, they’re admitting “communication errors”. This is an often-heard strategy to distract the public from the fact that errors were made in terms of operations.
It’s a bargaining game: let’s see if we get away with blaming it on the communication strategy and not on the operations. If journalists and the public accept this, it might calm down the storm. If they don’t, it might work against you.
In the Fipronil egg-crisis in Belgium, the “communication error” excuses were made a couple of times. I consider communicating properly on food safety a crucial task of a public organization.
The main errors the Belgian food safety agency made in terms of communication were that they weren’t prepared, had no tested tools and statements, and were focused too much on themselves and not towards the general public.
They tried to get away with the ‘communication error’ strategy, and failed to see that the public did not accept this excuse.
This is a guest post written by Bram Boriau. Bram is the founder of Talking Birds Public Relations and has extensive experience in crisis communication.