A section for entrepreneurs: Crash course - Managing in a crisis

A section for entrepreneurs: Crash course - Managing in a crisis - For Allied Bakeries, it was finding needles in some of its loaves. For accountancy firm Weeks Green, a hospitality day out which ended with a client fined for being drunk on the plane home

by ALEXANDER GARRETT
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For Allied Bakeries, it was finding needles in some of its loaves. For accountancy firm Weeks Green, a hospitality day out which ended with a client fined for being drunk on the plane home. For Railtrack it was the horror of Paddington. One day it's business as usual, the next day you are in the midst of a disaster. The media is ready to crucify you, and your company's very future is in doubt.

EXPECT THE WORST. Plan ahead for a crisis. You need a business continuity plan to keep operations going in the event of a warehouse fire, systems failure or any other disaster, says Michael Regester of reputation risk consultancy Regester Larkin. 'You should also have a communications plan which outlines how you will communicate quickly and effectively with key stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, shareholders and the media,' he adds. Make it clear who has specific responsibility for contacting particular individuals, and how other groups will be contacted.

STAY COOL. In practice most crisis-hit executives run round like headless chickens, says independent consultant Michael Bland, author of Communicating out of a Crisis. 'You need to take a cool strategic overview. Ask yourself if everyone has a common view of the situation. How bad can it get? What message do you need to put out and how?' The first 24 hours are often crucial.

HOW DO OTHERS SEE IT? What counts are other people's perceptions, not your own. To you, it might be a storm in a teacup, but if your customers, investors or other audiences perceive the situation to be damaging, that's what you must address.

GET THE MEDIA ON YOUR SIDE. Hold a press conference or issue a statement, and give journalists maximum access. 'You need to provide absolute transparency to the media,' says Regester. 'Demonstrate from the beginning that you'll cooperate with them, and they can be your best ally. But if they believe that you are slow in providing information, they'll lose confidence. Your aim is to become the 'Single Authoritative Source' of information.

BEWARE OF CRISIS CREEP. Sometimes an issue creeps up on you. Issues like BSE or the problem of oil rig disposal were around for years before hitting the headlines. Watch for warning signs. A story that features repeatedly in the trade press will soon be picked up by the national media. An independent investigation may also force an issue to come under the national spotlight.

TELL THE TRUTH. 'Tell a lie and you die,' says Regester. You may not be able to tell everything you know - for example, if an issue is sub judice, or the stock market needs to be informed - but at least try to explain why you can't tell all.

SAY SORRY. An apology usually helps to diffuse the situation. You may not want to admit liability but express your regret that it occurred and your determination to prevent it happening again.

TAKE PERSONAL CONTROL. Don't try and hide behind spin doctors or consultants.

Use them but make sure that you are the spokesperson - after the Kegworth air crash, British Midlands chairman Sir Michael Bishop dropped everything, went straight there, and took personal responsibility. He gained a huge amount of credit for doing so.

BE HUMAN. 'Crisis management isn't a black art,' says Adrian Wheeler, chairman of the Public Relations Consultants Association. 'If you behave as a human being, then you can't go far wrong.'

DO SAY: 'We would like to express our deepest sympathies to those who have been affected, and shall leave no stone unturned in our efforts to establish exactly how this happened.'

DON'T SAY: 'Crisis? What crisis? Let's just keep our heads down, chaps, and in a week's time it will have blown over.'

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