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The importance of handling crisis comms correctly

March, 2024

Every organisation, regardless of size or industry, is susceptible to crises that can potentially tarnish their reputation and even threaten their very existence. Philip Jones, Associate at Kent-based PR, marketing and public affairs agency Maxim, provides some tips on what organisations can do to prepare.

Whether it's a natural disaster, product recall, data breach, or a self-inflicted public relations nightmare, how a company responds during a crisis can make or break its future. More than 30 years after the event, Gerald Ratner is still synonymous with ill-advised remarks that scuppered his business.

With the prevalence of social media and the 24/7 rolling news agenda, time is not on the side of an organisation finding itself in a sticky situation. 

Be prepared 

That’s why it is wise to have prepared for the worst in advance, and to have drawn up a crisis comms plan addressing the types of issues that might arise. When the proverbial hits the fan, you really don’t want to be wasting time trying to find people’s mobile phone numbers or getting approval on a holding statement while you try to deal with the situation in hand.

Having some prior media training is also a good idea as your first media interview can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience.

But the reality is many organisations are too busy doing the day job to feel they have the time to do this kind of contingency planning. 


Some do’s and don’ts

So, if something blows up in your face – or looks like it is about to – what are some of the things you should do and – equally importantly – not do?

Don’t turn a molehill into a mountain. If you’re too emotionally involved in a situation, it’s easy to overreact. So, take a step back and look at the situation dispassionately. What may seem to you like the most important thing in the world may well be of zero interest to anyone else. 

Don’t – while endeavouring to do the right thing and to be proactive – be the person who brings the story to life by drawing unnecessary attention to the issue you are facing. Instead, prepare a reactive statement in case it’s needed and monitor the situation.

Don’t hide behind ‘no comment’. If you refuse to explain what is going on, other people will fill the void for you and speculation will breathe new life into a story that could have been shut down with a clear and timely explanation. 

A recent example is the controversy around the editing of the Mothering Sunday photo issued by Kensington Palace. The initial refusal to offer any explanation only fuelled the controversy, and what seems to have started as an effort to curtail speculation around the state of Princess of Wales’ health ended up having the opposite effect.

Get your skates on. Journalists will be keen to get their copy online as soon as possible. If you delay giving a response, they’ll simply run their story without any comment from you, irrespective of whether you think that’s not fair or balanced.  

Be upfront, honest and realistic

Be realistic. If you decide you want to tough something out, be realistic about the line of defence you are going to use and whether it will hold. Rishi Sunak’s initial line on the Frank Hester/Diane Abbott affair was completely untenable, not least when his own cabinet members almost immediately started saying something different. Again, it dragged the story out, generated days of further bad headlines and made the Government look a shambles.

Be transparent and honest. People will forgive you if you hold up your hands, say what went wrong and how you are going to make amends. Lying might seem a tempting way to avoid having to admit a wrong-doing, but if found out – which it almost invariably will be – it will cause far more reputational damage than the original transgression. 

Conversely, when companies demonstrate transparency, honesty, and accountability in their communications during a crisis, they are more likely to retain the trust of customers, employees, investors, and the public.

If this article has left you thinking that you need to put a crisis communications plan in place sooner rather than later, please contact the team at Maxim. 


Philip Jones - Associate

Philip Jones

Maxim / Associate

posted in: advice, reputation management,

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