First Toyota. Now BP.
The two global companies were tone deaf when a crisis erupted. But why? I thought the practice of “crisis communications” was a lot more advanced than it has played out recently.
To get experts’ perspective on the damaging mistakes and provide a better model for execs who may face a crisis in the future, I sat down with three local PR veterans: Rob Baskin of Manning, Selvage & Lee; Bob Hope of Hope-Beckham; and Karen Kaplan of Fleishman-Hillard. Each heads the Atlanta operation of their respective firms. Together, they have 105 years of PR experience.
To be honest, they were befuddled by BP’s actions and how ill-prepared and off-balance it has been from the start. But rather than belabor the well-reported misdeeds, how do you do it right?
When a crisis erupts, they said, a company — hopefully the CEO — needs to take charge quickly or a bad situation can spin out of control. If that happens, it’s hard to regain control and a company risks bouncing from reaction to reaction as its reputation and brand get pummeled.
Since the very nature of a crisis means it is likely to be unprecedented and unpredictable, they said, having an up-to-date communications plan becomes even more imperative. Uncertainty requires more planning — not less.
That means running periodic crisis-simulation exercises to get familiar with unfamiliar terrain.
It also means having a clear understanding of who the messenger will be from Day One. They suggested the CEO, but they cautioned that some CEOs would rather delegate the task. That might be OK, they said, as long as there is “one unifying voice.” PR experts — internal and external — need to have seats in the War Room to offer their advice.
But that’s not always the case, they said. Sometimes the operations, legal and financial execs get much more access to the CEO than the PR people. In the current climate of 24/7 news, that can be even more damaging to a company than it might have been in the past.
But what does a CEO or designated spokesman say, particularly if all the facts are not known?
Again, it’s the uncertainty that requires skillful and honest leadership. That has to play out internally with employees and externally with the public from the start of the crisis.
It’s critical, they said, to communicate the following from the gitgo:
– Here’s what we did wrong. We’re sorry.
– Never minimize the impact before all the information is in. If that happens, a sense of distrust can emerge that will be very hard to erase.
– Here’s what we’re going to do to repair the situation in the short-term. We will keep you abreast on at least a daily basis. This is important, they said, since the “rumor mill” is generally on fire during a crisis.
– Here’s what we’re going to do over the long haul to make it right. A separate team should be charged with developing plans and a timeline that might go on for five or 10 years, or more.
Essentially, a company and its CEO need to become transparent, humble and humane. It may not be easy, but it’s required.
Otherwise, don’t expect forgiveness.
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