Leaders must change their approach to survive in a crisis

There have been a few too many well-documented crisis moments for big organisations recently.

When a crisis – defined as a critical issue which threatens an organisation’s ability to continue functioning – erupts, business leaders often fall back on old methods to tackle negative media and stakeholder pressure.

We’re seeing new manifestations of how negative news stories unfold and gather momentum. At times of crisis, this slowness to adapt and inflexibility of approach has cost businesses more than their just their good reputation – Oxfam is an obvious example.

Today business leaders must recognise the need to communicate quickly, and in the correct manner, in order to protect the brand they are responsible for.

Recent crises have highlighted systemic issues with boardroom culture, alongside poor preparedness. Business leaders hunkering down rather than publicly defending their brand is something we see too often. In each case, old-fashioned thinking has cost them.

Times have changed. The approach of business leaders take to social media highlights this mind-set too. Facebook was launched in 2004 and now has over 2.2 billion users. Twitter, the most prolific news generating platform, was launched in 2006 and today has over 330 million active monthly users. These are now established channels, but leaders still fail to take advantage of the opportunities it presents in a crisis. It’s no longer relevant to think in news cycles. News is continuous.

This isn’t to say that traditional methods are finished. Business leaders still see more risk in engaging with the media during a crisis than working with it to take control of the narrative and to be accountable. There is convergence between channels too. A poor media interview can become viral on social channels and a single tweet positioned in the wrong way or posted at the wrong time can make headline news.

Being prepared for both is the best option every time and yet so many leaders are reticent about engagement. Where does this inertia stem from? Crises demand that leaders act decisively (which they are often scared by) and publicly (which means being accountable). Both are good tests of their ability to lead, but too often they fail.

If you’re a business leader, here are some lessons to consider:

  1. Don’t let the handling of a crisis become the crisis. If you get it wrong, it may say more about your organisation’s culture and your leadership than the initial cause.
  2. Communicate quickly and frequently. Do it before other people share their versions of your truth. Demonstrate that you are in control, taking action and resolving the issue.
  3. Take a social media first strategy. News is continuous and immediate, so use the most accessible medium to provide information. But, don’t ignore the continuing power of traditional mediums.
  4. Don’t pull the wool over people’s eyes. Use common sense and think like a human, not a robot. Get to the nucleus of an issue and address that, as early as possible.
  5. Don’t sit behind your desk, be a leader. Communicate your message and if possible, in person. Don’t let the media hunt for a target and extend the crisis. Be accountable.

To make life easier when that dreaded day comes, get ahead with writing a crisis response plan. You should do all you can to understand your risks, mitigate them and have systems in place to guide your response in the first few hours. But remember, when an issue erupts, 9 times out of 10 it’s how you respond in the first hour that counts.

For more information about the issues and crisis preparation and management services by GK Strategy, contact ned@gkstrategy.com

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