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Turning companies’ response to crisis inside out

Crisis hurts. It's a harsh moment of truth for any organisation. It can happen at any time. It disrupts your ability to function. Usually, it's a sign that change of some kind is needed; a restructure, a new policy, a revision of your organisation's mission and message. It can be traumatic for leaders and employees as their company's reputation and morale both take a hit. It can leave lasting damage.

Take Oxfam; few could forget CEO Mark Goldring's discomfort and employees' distress following allegations of sexual misconduct against some of the charity's staff in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The challenge to remain poised, calm and in control in front of the media and Oxfam's staff day after day required a steady heart. It was one example of how a dormant crisis can burn silently below deck for many years before engulfing an organisation in the conflagration of crisis with severe, enduring consequences.

Or, remember the repeated uneasy apologies Facebook Director Mark Zuckerberg had to make on media networks and, eventually, to Congress when it was revealed that Cambridge-Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political purposes. These were watershed moments for both organisations with significant global reputations to protect.

It's a fact of working life that, sometimes, things will go wrong and you need a strategy to deal with the fall-out. A crisis can hit any company, so knowing how to handle one well and how to communicate most effectively during it, makes good business sense. The simple truth is: every organisation is vulnerable, no matter how large and well-established, or small and recently-arrived it is. The way your company communicates can make the difference between a crisis escalating out of control, or being a minor setback.

When the worst happens, many companies prioritise their public image by immediately engaging with the media to put their side of the story across. This is all well and good as it's an essential part of protecting reputation, reassuring stakeholders and customers that it's "business as usual" and retaining support. There should be a plan in place with chief executives and senior managers taking ownership of the crisis. But, at a time of chaos, when events are developing quickly, there's a risk of forgetting that your staff are your most important audience. After all, every one of them is a PR representative and crisis manager for your organisation.

During a crisis, more than at any other time, employees need to believe internal communication is a trusted source of information. Company leaders should communicate early and often and provide clear, consistent and timely messages. You may feel you already do this, but it's important to remember that everything is intensified and amplified in a crisis and it's easy to take employees – and their inside knowledge – for granted. They should never be the last to know the facts, or any developments.

It's a good idea to involve employees who know more than anyone else about the work and the company's situation. Allowing staff to talk about their areas of expertise can be both credible and powerful. And it's through dialogue between managers and staff that blame is transformed into problem solving, which in turn leads to closer collaboration and forming common goals.

Companies need the full support of their staff to be resourceful, resilient and to recover from challenging or unexpected events as quickly as possible. Internal communication is central to this. It holds everyone together when everything else seems to be falling apart. If companies have a crisis communications plan, a protocol and key messages in place, this will help staff feel things are under control. They are the people who will determine how quickly and fully the organisation will recover. Win their trust, show a willingness to listen and they'll show you the way to win back your company's good reputation.

If you are interested in crisis communications training: When your reputation and brand are at stake, the way you communicate with your employees and how you manage your message to stakeholders is a key skill which can be gained from crisis communications training. It offers organisations from all sectors practical tools to help prepare and plan for the unexpected emergency and to communicate with the audiences that matter most. For more information about crisis communications training, click here.

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