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Something hits the fan, what you gonna say?

Let me start with an old aphorism: If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.

In life, sometimes things will turn ugly, some unpleasant stuff may hit the fan. In the current VUCA environment, calamity can hit us before we even can make any sense of it. Just three months ago, we let our hair down to celebrate Christmas and ring in the new year. Three weeks later, we were on our toes guarding against Covid-19 during Chinese New Year.

For businesses, untoward events can happen any time: a fire in a production plant, food poisoning at a restaurant, an executive is accused of insider trading, charges of accounting fraud, loss of property, funds or data through theft, failure of customer-facing IT systems and apps, or injury to staff, customers or visitors on their premises.

When such crises or issues happen, the company management must attend to many things concurrently. They will be busy fighting fires to resolve the issues head-on. They need to inform and update their staff on what has happened. They may need to explain the issue to the relevant authority. They must make public announcements and assuage the concerns of customers and other external stakeholders. There are also incessant media queries that just won’t go away.

Suddenly, there are a thousand and one things to do, and each requires immediate attention. There’s no luxury of time to deal with so many things one by one. If a company says nothing, the public space will be filled with fake news. And if a company says the wrong thing or communicates the wrong message in a moment of haste, instead of alleviating the situation, the company’s reputation is hurt.

One need not look too far for an example of communication gone wrong. Footages of a passenger being forcefully removed from United Flight 3411 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in April 2017 are still vivid in our minds. Reportedly, the passenger lost two front teeth and suffered a concussion and a broken nose.

The next morning, the airline’s CEO issued a statement which appeared to justify the forceful removal, referring to it as “re-accommodating the customer”. He also sent an email to United staff commending the crew’s actions for following established procedures and referring to the passenger as “disruptive” and “belligerent”. Unwarranted overbearing physical removal aside, the public was also critical of United’s communication. The use of the word “re-accommodate” received particular attention and ridicule from social media and commentators. While the CEO’s email is for an internal audience, one should still be prudent in the choice of words; what more, witness descriptions and cell phone video clips of the passenger’s action contradicted the description of him as “disruptive” and “belligerent”.

Because of this incident, United’s share price fell. The airline spent millions to compensate the passenger, reimburse all other passengers on that flight and channel precious resources to handle the fallout. Indubitably, the company’s reputation was damaged. United also announced weeks later after the incident that the CEO would remain but would not take broader control of the company as previously planned.

The importance of crisis communication planning cannot be over emphasized; prior preparation can save the day. Companies need to have a communication plan before any crisis hits. They ought to identify potential problems and think of options on how to deal with them and plan what to say in those situations.

A robust Crisis Communication Plan should also entail the appointment of a crisis committee which should include the company’s corporate communication officer or its PR agency to strategise and manage both internal and external communication. The company also ought to identify a spokesperson to ensure the company speaks with one voice and delivers a clear and consistent message. The spokesperson should be trained on how to answer media questions and handle media interviews. Relating to the different crisis scenarios, the company needs to identify the target audiences, namely staff, shareholders, customers, suppliers, authority, regulators, and the public at large, and decide on suitable communication channels such as townhall briefings, emails, traditional media and social media to make announcements and provide updates.

A full Crisis Communication Plan also covers when to say what. Employees, customers and suppliers ought to hear from the company directly instead of from other sources. “When to say”, “what to say” and “whom to say to” minimises internal rumours within the company and reduces fake news that may circulate on social media.

Even if a crisis has passed and it has been handled well, there is still work to do. There is still a need to monitor news, public comments and sentiments to capture all media coverage and social chatter, and assess if there is a need to address and respond to them.

The company should also conduct a post-mortem to measure and evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of its response and approach to the crisis to learn and improve its crisis management. One key area is the deployment of resources in dealing with the crisis and the actual response time taken in addressing the issue and in making announcements. The findings of the after-action-review will help to update the company’s Crisis Communication Plan with new insights and learnings which should be shared with everyone in the crisis committee and also other key staff of the company.

A good Crisis Communication Plan minimises the impact to the company, its operations, its business, its customers, its staff and its reputation in the event of a crisis. When companies plan for the future, they can’t be just hoping for the best but not preparing for the worst. Fortune favours the prepared.

Let me end with another old aphorism: Better to be safe than sorry.

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El Lee
RHT Communications and Investor Relations

To learn more, write to and receive a complimentary book on Crisis Communication.

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