Brexit, pandemics, wars, elections, the rise of cancel culture, strikes and recessions have seen global economies, businesses, politicians and everyday people lurch from one crisis to the next in recent years. Early indications are that this year will be no exception – and there are some stark learnings to be found in the events of 2022.

From the Royals’ rollercoaster of reputational ruin (thanks ‘Haz’ and Andrew), the Government gaffs of Johnson, Truss and Kwarteng, to stellar corporate comms disasters from P&O Ferries, BrewDog, FIFA and Balenciaga – the year almost charts every lesson in reputation mismanagement.

But getting it wrong isn’t just about bruised egos. It’s also something that has a real financial impact. According to our client, Guinness World Records, Elon Musk has just broken the record for the largest loss of personal fortune – an estimated $182 billion – which is, in part, fuelled by poorly considered tweets (and actions) since becoming Twitter CEO.

According to the World Economic Forum, a quarter of a company’s market value can be directly related to its reputation, and 87% of executives think that reputational challenges are more important than other strategic risks.

Clearly, it’s not just billionaires having sleepless nights over corporate reputation. In a world that’s now predictably unpredictable, more businesses than ever are grappling with the best way to plan and prepare for the impact of negative news. This could be because of poor economic performance, restructuring, supply chain issues, bad customer service or Glassdoor reviews. Or, it could be a full-blown crisis linked to accidents, negligence, cyber-attacks, product recalls, and activist targeting. It may even be just a simple cock-up. Whatever the reason, a mismanaged crisis casts a long shadow over the value and reputation of a business and its leadership team.

Being prepared to manage communications in a crisis isn’t just good comms or business sense. Rather, it’s an essential element of risk management and business continuity planning. And despite all the chatter (sorry, it had to be done) about Chat GPT being the cat’s pyjamas (full disclosure –  that idiom did in fact come from Chat GPT) it’s something a chatbot won’t fix.

It’s no surprise therefore that we’ve seen a huge surge in requests for crisis planning (and response). As a result we’ve launched one of the most comprehensive crisis planning and response units on the market. The Brand Protector is Definition Group’s integrated division bringing together the customer experience, employee engagement, media and social experts from Definition Agency, Words&Pictures and Brand Vista into one team focused on crisis planning, training and response. Our experts have worked agency and client side either firefighting for some of the world’s biggest brands, law firms and public bodies, or reporting on them for national media.

The team spans former national and international journalists, digital media and search specialists and internal communications experts, as well as consumer sentiment, brand research and customer engagement consultants. All of them work across the division’s four distinct offers – Prepare & Plan, Train & Test, Respond & Review, Retain & Reassure.

So to help anyone starting to think about what they can prepare for and how, should the proverbial hit the fan, here are our five essential tips that should be central to ANY crisis response – no matter the scenario.

  1. Have a plan. It sounds simple but many organisations either haven’t developed a crisis plan or, if they have, reviewed it in the last six months. How would you fare if you received a call at 5pm on a Friday from a journalist running a national exposé on your business? What would you say? Who would say it? What channels would you use? What do you say to your investors and team? Your plan needs to define all roles and responsibilities, out of hours and offline contacts, and authorisation processes. It also needs to be accessible offline and remotely.
  2. Use your F words. And not the one you might think. Be first, frank and fast with your response – in an age of 24-hour news, the media has a veracious appetite for stories and getting a response out quickly is essential to managing the narrative. Remember (the royal family being a prime example) – no comment doesn’t mean no story and it’s always better to work with journalists and influencers rather than ignoring them – they’ll just run the piece anyway.
  3. Be honest. With yourself and others about your role in the situation. If you’re at fault, say so (it’s bound to come out anyway) but also use your ‘R’ words – regret, reason and remedy – to explain why it happened and what you’re doing to put it right. NEVER tell untruths, try and shift blame or dodge the full story – it’s bound to come out and you’ll get far more respect for taking it on the chin and demonstrating a credible approach to putting things right.
  4. Show empathy. Once upon a time, a formal holding statement worked wonders in a crisis – but in today’s post-pandemic world the businesses that manage their reputations well in a crisis do so by being authentic, sympathetic and staying true to their tone of voice. Corporate jargon in statements from the legal team will only serve to either alienate people or, worse, look like there’s something to hide. Make every effort to prepare these in your crisis plan in a style that’s authentically “you”.
  5. Think inside and out. Your internal audiences are as important as your external ones – communication to employees can often be forgotten in the scrabble and panic to respond to media, as well as comments on your social feeds. Yet, if you can engage them in the right way, they’re your biggest ambassadors who can really amplify your response. Spend as much time mapping out your internal communications flow as you do your external and remember – your people will always know far more than you think they know! Don’t spin, be straight up with the facts (as much as circumstances will allow) and treat colleagues with respect. They’ll be your greatest advocates and your first line of defence.

Louise Vaughan is Co-Founder & Chief Client Officer at Definition Group. Find out more about  the group’s Brand Protector programme.

This blog was first published in Business Reporter