When a crisis erupts, there is a temptation for organisations to hunker down and focus all their efforts on resolving the problem. This is a mistake! Whilst fixing that which has gone wrong is clearly the priority, communicating the consequences of the incident to those directly and indirectly impacted is of equal importance.

Ultimately, it is the effectiveness of communications in a crisis that will dictate the extent of damage to an organisation’s corporate reputation. Get it right, and the organisation can emerge from a crisis with its reputation intact or even enhanced; get it wrong, and the consequences can be devastating for brand value that may have taken decades or longer to build.

Just consider a few recent cases – the CBI, Capita, TSB and the SNP, to name just a few – to see how poor communications around a crisis can severely negatively impact reputation and value. Each case, of course, involves different issues, but what they all have in common is that they were made worse by a failure to take effective control of the information narrative.

And the damage can be long-lasting – and potentially terminal.

The CBI plummeted within weeks from being regarded as a respected and influential voice of business to a pariah organisation because of its ineptitude in responding to the exposure of a ’rotten’ corporate culture. The revelation led to the sacking of its CEO and the departure of large numbers of member organisations that wanted to avoid being tainted by association. Whether the CBI survives is in the balance.

For Capita, the consequences of a data breach in March have gone beyond the operational impact to complaints that it was far too slow to share information with clients and media about what had happened. The headline in The Times summed the situation up: ‘Silence is deafening after Capita hack.’ Cyber security experts have speculated that Capita may have paid a ransom to the hackers.

Five years after TSB’s disastrous IT meltdown disrupted services for millions of customers in a botched migration to a new platform following its acquisition by Sabadell, the Spanish bank, the reputation damage is still happening. The latest blow was the publication of a damaging report by the Prudential Regulation Authority.

And for the SNP, the full fall-out of the police investigation of its finances has yet to be seen, but the ‘drip-drip’ of claims and counter-claims is a case study of an organisation that has lost control of its messaging. The SNP is merely seen as responding to rather than driving the conversation.

The rising importance of crisis management and disaster response was underlined by the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors (ICAEW) last year when it listed them in the top ten threats to business continuity and survival.

With intensifying demands for transparency and accountability, individuals and organisations know that they are under greater scrutiny than ever by an array of stakeholders with high expectations. They include employees and prospective staff; suppliers; business partners and financial backers; customers, clients and the wider public; policymakers, regulators and opinion formers; and, of course, print, broadcast and online media and social media’s massive, almost unregulated, incredibly influential population.

If all that wasn’t enough, the turbulent, uncertain times we live in are ramping up the prevailing air of expectation that things will go wrong. Indeed, Collins Dictionary, 2022’s word of the year was ‘permacrisis’: “an extended period of instability and insecurity”.

It has left many businesses apprehensive and wary.

And that is why, at Definition, we created The Brand Protector, our specialist crisis communications service. It is made up of experts from across our 120 people, seven consultancies-strong communications group, highly experienced in advising organisations on how to prepare for, and ‘live’ handle, internal and external communications in a crisis.

Our mantra is that whilst not every problem is a crisis, every crisis is a problem. We define a crisis as:

‘An unexpected event or happening that threatens the operational, financial or reputational viability of an organisation.’

By their very nature, neither the precise details of a crisis nor its timing can be predicted. But there are fundamental processes and procedures an organisation can adopt to ensure that, should the worst happen, there is a clear and comprehensive plan in place to handle vital communications, externally and internally, even as the issue itself is being investigated and remedied.

Here are a few key points to consider:

  • Don’t make the situation worse – telling an untruth will always be found out and the consequences can be worse than the original crisis itself.
  • Stay calm – decisions made in a panic are rarely the best.
  • Think clearly – consider the wider context and the indirect as well as the direct impacts.
  • Act proportionately – saying too much can be as bad as not saying enough.
  • Take responsibility – if you’re in the wrong, say so, and explain why and what you are doing to remedy the matter.
  • Show empathy – especially to those adversely impacted by your actions.
  • Clarity and consistency – tell the same story to your internal and external audiences.

Crisis communications planning must be regarded as an integral part of operational risk and resilience management and business continuity preparation.

Because a crisis has many facets, our team is made up of professionals with the comprehensive range of expertise across the diverse portfolio of skills required to meet the demand of a 24/7 information world. They include former national and international journalists, internal communications specialists, social media experts, customer engagement and sentiment tracking corporate communications executives and brand management advisers.

Together, they ensure crisis communications are handled effectively and stay aligned with an organisation’s brand and values, which is critical to its recovery and future success.

Peter Davenport is Strategy Consultant at Definition Agency. Find out more about  the group’s Brand Protector programme.