The recent tragic Air Asia crash is yet to be fully understood, and there are many who are directly and indirectly affected by this terrible event.
At times like this, organisations need to respond to what has happened, and how they do this will earn them sympathy or support, or else turn the anger of those suffering, the media and the general public against them.
So far, Tony Fernandes, the group CEO of Air Asia, has done an outstanding job. His communication has been thoughtful, timely and well delivered. It reminds me of Richard Branson, who was an outstanding crisis communicator during the Midlands train crash a few years back, as well as during the space plane test flight crash in 2014.
The truth is that a leader and organisation without a crisis plan, and without a good crisis communication approach, will more than likely be out of business two years after a crisis strikes. Knowing how to navigate crisis is a critical part of business resilience strategy.
So what can a leader do?
- Make sure they have a well developed and tested crisis plan. This sits alongside the business continuity plan. It should be regularly tested and updated. [ hint: if your crisis plan covers what happens if your fax machines go offline, then it is time to update it!]. Risks change in type and importance, so being up to date is very important.
- Build a culture where customer experience and care is paramount. In the ambiguity of crisis, having people in your organisation who understand the importance of helping customers and external communities is critical. When there is no ‘policy’, people reference the unwritten rules of the organisation’s culture on how they should act. In crisis, scrutiny of behaviour multiplies exponentially. As people demonstrate the culture during crisis, it can even work to enhance your brand and reputation. [Hint: if your culture is about passing the buck, preserving the status quo and self promotion, it is not going to over very well when this is what people demonstrate when things get ambiguous during the heat of a crisis].
- Train your communicators, decide who speaks. Having a spokesperson who is well trained and briefed is a key element of speaking on behalf of the organisation. They are who the media will flock to, and the soundbites they offer will be in the public domain for a long time to come. However, in the modern social world, every member of your staff is a potential communicator and brand ambassador. Ensuring they are supported to speak authentically, and with correct facts, is critical. Whether it is at a family get together (“you work for company X, how are you guys really going at the moment?”) to people in your organisation on social media, it is developing a consistent, authentic message that counts. This only comes from being inclusive and clear in your internal communications as a leader. Remember, your does not have one voice, but many.
- Be there until it is done. Richard Branson comes back from holiday to be visibly on site in a crisis. He stays until no one cares any more. He demonstrates his absolute commitment by physically being there, putting all else aside. Compare this to Tony Hayward, the (now former) CEO of BP during the gulf oil spill. Rather than stay on point during the crisis, he went sailing – he was pilloried in the media, had to spend a lot of energy defending himself and in the end lost his job because of his handling of the crisis.
- Understand there are three types of potential crisis. The first is an unforeseen accident (like a plane crash), the second is where an error has been made (ie, an innocent but tragic mistake), and the third is when the company or leader is at fault ( for a misdemeanour, planned or criminal act). Each requires a different approach, although often early on the leaders and the organisation may not know what type of crisis they are facing. What you do must be a direct response to the type of crisis you are facing.
How should a leader communicate in crisis?
First, know that you are communicating to 5 audiences:
- Your customers;
- The staff of your organisation ( who are also your social voice);
- The community (including regulators, law enforcement and activists) ;
- The media; and
- Any victims and/or their loved ones.
It is critical to engage each group properly.
Remember : Authenticity and transparency wins. Every time.
Follow the simple recipe for the initial response:
- How the leader personally feels
- What we as a company value or hold important (hint, our customers, our people etc)
- What we know at this point (only the facts, never, ever speculate!)
- Thank those helping (staff, emergency services, etc)
- What the organisation is doing about it (current action steps or planned actions)
Later, when more information emerges, a leader can be more nuanced. Strategies like “find a hero” are often then introduced to turn the story away from the event to positive human interest. If there has been criminal activity, you can bet the media will go hard to “find a villain” – as they should! The organisation should get there before the media in this case, and have taken appropriate action.
If the company is at fault, there are recovery strategies for getting through this phase, although this usually requires bold actions and deep authenticity as trust has normally been completely destroyed in this circumstance.
A crisis is a time when an organisation and its leaders get to really demonstrate their values and purpose – under high pressure and scrutiny.
How would you fare?
Are you ready and prepared for crisis?
How will you communicate?