Communications in a crisis are fast, furious and the line between truth and fiction can often become blurred.
At such times, public opinion can be swayed by emotions and people’s perceptions reinforced by like-minded commenters online, rather than by expert advice through traditional channels.
These perceptions are continually fed by digital communications that have increasingly marginalised the role of mainstream media as opinion leaders and the main source of information. It has also turned everyone with a smartphone into a journalist, editor and publisher who can be rewarded with likes, shares and comments.
United Airlines and British Airways are two recent examples of organisations that paid the price for being too slow to respond and – more importantly – for missing how people felt.
Social media and digital communications are no longer nice-to-haves.
Our latest study of senior business and public sector leaders, Reputation Reality: Trans-Tasman Perspectives on Reputation and Risk, shows that organisations regard their reputations as more important than ever before, while the risks are growing and are harder to manage.
The survey being released later this month is the fifth in 10 years undertaken by SenateSHJ and the results reinforce earlier findings, along with one very worrying trend. Most organisations still don’t put their money where their mouths are.
Most have a crisis plan, but only about half of them test and rehearse it. That’s particularly concerning given that only 40 per cent feel confident they can manage a crisis event on social media.
If the mantra is: Tell the truth, tell it all, tell it fast – then how does an organisation survive the onslaught on its reputation in the new digital environment where winning hearts is as important as winning heads?
Successful organisations need to act in ways that resonate with their audiences’ values – not just in response to a crisis, but as part of business as usual.
People only panic when they don’t have enough information, so be up-front – tell people what you don’t know and what you are doing to find out. Trust people with risk and uncertainty, and help them take control of what they can by telling them how to manage their own risks.
Recognise that there is an emotional as well as a rational response to any situation – communicate and behave in a way that respects people’s fears and feelings.
Above all, good risk communication involves a two-way dialogue – the key is listening and giving those affected a meaningful voice.
Many crises are not acts of God – they can be caused by someone with ‘an axe to grind’, a company’s incompetence or inattention, idiocy, or the failure to spot the obvious. As such, most are predictable and manageable. Contingencies can be put in place and rehearsed.
Values and ethics are an increasing driver for customer and staff engagement, and establishing an emotional connection is vital.
This article is based on a presentation that SenateSHJ Partner Spiro Anastasiou gave to the Food Integrity 2017 conference in Auckland recently.