Sandpaper-gate: Why External Expertise is Invaluable in a Crisis

This weekend, the Australian cricket cheating scandal broke. Many believe that the team’s leadership didn’t go far enough to show remorse and implement corrective action. Did they take advice from external communications advisors? If not, perhaps they should have.

Facebook, Enterprise, KFC and Donald Trump are all in the midst of major crises. All have, arguably, not handled their fates particularly well. Could they have done better with the proper advice? Could external experts have lessened the reputational impact?

External crisis communications specialists ask questions you would rather avoid or you might not think of.  They tell you what is really going on beyond your boardroom walls, desk or computer screen.

That external view of the world is even more essential when you are in a crisis, trying to weather a negative media and social media campaign going viral, when your share price is in a nose dive or when you have product recalls and customers threatening legal or class action.  With social and digital media, global connectivity, and millions of untrained smartphone journalists, bad news just got a turbo boost. Before you can blink, your business is bleeding.

An internal or external “spin doctor” is not the answer. It is all about professionalism, credibility, ethics, values, consistency, decisions and action.  Short term, “cheap” shots, obfuscation, arrogance or insensitivity will backfire.

Even if you have a solid communication department, here is what an external expert can do for you: they bring a wealth of experience from a diverse range of other sectors and clients; a fresh, external perspective; they have only one motive: to help you through this; they spot silo’s, integrate and synergise; they connect dots; they guide you to unlock and articulate your expertise; they add value and fast-track processes; they see the real problems, ask tough questions and spot opportunities.

There have been many telling, recent case studies in crisis communication: Steinhoff (financial figures, plunging share price), Capitec (attacked by Vicecroy), Tiger Brands (listeriosis and product recalls), BP (oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), Volkswagen (diesel emission figures in the United States), Samsung (Galaxy 7 phones exploding on airplanes) and the Ford Kuga (catching fire). (There is a list of the world’s top public relations blunders.)

Think about the damage to SAP, McKinsey, KPMG, Trillian, Oakbay and Bell Pottinger when they were linked to the Gupta family and state capture – exposed in the Gupta leaks.

In most of these cases, fundamental mistakes were made with communicating about these mishaps to the world.  That world consists of their own staff, shareholders, stakeholders, decision makers, regulatory authorities, news media and social media used by many of the groups listed.

You must have clean up teams, technical repair crews, plan B or C and hotshot lawyers.  If, however, you do not communicate properly, they cannot shield you. Leave a void, fail to respond to mounting pressures, dodge questions, hide from media enquiries and misinformation, rumours, speculation, criticism and horrible slogans will come back to bite you.

You should prepare for a crisis and have contingency plans ready and rehearsed.  If, however, a significant crisis hits:

  • Tell your staff first – customers, family and friends will ask them; make them informed ambassadors, not clueless critics.
  • Use only one, mandated, experienced spokesperson for all public information and updates. – the more you use, the worse the discrepancies become. (Ask the two dozen spokespersons that tried to explain the Gupta airplane landing at Waterkloof.)
  • Tell it all and tell it fast.
  • Tell the truth immediately, facts as they unfold and are verified.
  • Manage expectations, under promise, over deliver.
  • Be empathic, real, never arrogant or insensitive.
  • Never underestimate the value of an early, unqualified and sincere apology.
  • When the crisis is over, the work starts: rebuild the positioning of and confidence in your business.

If the pointers above look like an easy do-it-yourself kit, do not be fooled. Handling a reputation crisis is complicated, stressful, can last long and requires a seasoned (external) expert. For the value of your brand, this is an investment you cannot afford not to make.

Pieter Cronjé is an international strategist on contingency planning, reputation and crisis communication. As communication director and spokesperson for six organisations he was directly involved in the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, the Nigerian human rights and Brent Spar oil rig boycotts against Shell, the 2010 FIFA World Cup, major accidents, natural and manmade disasters, strikes, xenophobic violence and electricity blackouts in the Cape. Cronjé partners with Atmosphere for select consulting projects.

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