Melissa Agnes

When a crisis becomes a brand catastrophe

In Interviews by Peter Gearin

Crisis management adviser Melissa Agnes says Australian businesses – especially their communications teams – must be prepared when disaster strikes.

Modern communications departments have many varied responsibilities, but their importance during a corporate crisis is often ignored. During these difficult and sometimes desperate times – perhaps a cyber attack, a death at a company theme park or an on-site bomb threat – communications staff are the bridge between employees, investors, customers and the media. Their job is to say what is happening and what will happen next … as quickly and as transparently as possible.

In these moments, a brand’s future can hang by a thread as the world watches. According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than 40 per cent of businesses never reopen after a disaster. Of those that do, 29 per cent don’t survive beyond two years. Many companies – think Volkswagen (diesel-gate) and Ardent Leisure (Dreamworld tragedy) in recent times – have taken a significant reputational or financial hit following a corporate crisis.

The problem is that executives across the globe suffer from crisis denial. They don’t do the work necessary to prepare for situations that could threaten their jobs and their businesses, large or small.

Melissa Agnes is a crisis management adviser and keynote speaker based in Montreal, Canada. She is also a recently published author, having completed an excellent book on the subject, Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World.

Agnes’s easy-to-read book outlines how a business can identify what a real crisis looks like and be prepared for situations that could bring about its downfall. She says it’s vital that managers at all levels of an organisation are “crisis fit”; they can’t rely on a 10-year-old crisis management plan gathering dust on the risk and safety officer’s mahogany shelf.

“[Crisis management] needs to be about developing a culture in which people are taught and empowered to mitigate risk in real time, understand expectations, and make smart decisions quickly,” she writes in her book. “[It’s] a culture where crisis and issue management is an instinctive and reflexive team collaboration.”

While this level of preparedness might not stop businesses suffering pain during a corporate disaster, being “crisis ready” puts them in a better position to bounce back afterwards. Agnes says those businesses that don’t do the required work are likely to incur a higher crisis response penalty (CRP) – a term she invented to measure the impact a crisis has on the company bottom line. There’s also what she calls the “soft CRP”, which measures the reputational damage of a crisis.

Agnes says the responsibility for crisis management doesn’t just fall to the CEO, CIO or the executive suite. Everyone has a responsibility to be crisis ready. But she says those who manage the media and the company’s communications channels are vital cogs in the machine.

“The communications department has an incredibly important role in crisis management,” Agnes says. “Successful crisis management requires simultaneous and effective action and communication.

“One of the biggest mistakes we continue to see is organisations taking too much time to respond in times of crisis. And the longer you take to respond effectively, the more credibility and trust you lose with stakeholders, the more control over the narrative of the story you lose, and the more crisis response penalty you suffer.”

In this interview with Brand Tales, Agnes explains what it means for businesses to be “crisis-ready”.

Brand Tales: You say in your book that businesses in crisis situations may need to produce some form of communication within 15 minutes …

Melissa Agnes: It depends on the situation, but it’s a good rule of thumb to get the team ready to be able to respond within 15 minutes from the time the incident begins to garner online attention. The second it has an online presence, that’s when things start to escalate. And that’s pretty much immediately in this day and age.

BT: This relies on social media and communications staff having the ability and authority to act independently, doesn’t it?

Agnes: It does. And it’s not just social media, but it could be your customer service or sales teams. Whoever’s on the front line needs to be able to identify a threat, and then quickly assess whether it’s an “issue” or a “crisis”. And if it’s an issue, and if it has potential to go viral, typically speaking, issues fall under the realm of business-as-usual on hyper-drive. Crisis management is where business-as-usual stops. This is where it needs to get escalated straight up to senior leadership because it requires their attention, their directives and their approvals. So it’s important for team members on the front line to understand what the difference is, how to detect it, how to assess whether it will go to or from the other, and then know what the internal process is. If you take the time to train the team into thinking through the different scenarios and risks and make sure everybody’s on the same page, at least they’re going to know how to assess it and escalate it.

BT: How does a comms or PR team get senior executives to take crisis management seriously?

Agnes: The first steps to buy-in are creating awareness and education. Simulations are great. When you have a team that thinks they’re ready [for a crisis] and other members of the team know they’re not, simulations are a great way to bring reality to life in a controlled and safe environment. They allow the team to play together and experience what to expect in terms of a crisis, and see how they would react and work as a team and get out ahead of it. They may also get experts in to speak [to the whole team] and create that initial trigger of awareness.

BT: Is there ever a time as a crisis is brewing when saying “no comment” is a good idea?

Agnes: Saying nothing means that you’re letting everybody else speak for you. The only time that comes to mind when saying nothing may be the best course of action is when you’ve already taken a stance, or you’ve already said something, and there’s nothing more to say. And that’s not in a crisis per se – that’s more with a controversy that may arise. Generally speaking, at that point there’s nothing left to say. But as a rule of thumb, “no comment” is not an option. That’s just a recipe for disaster in this day and age.

BT: Are there still PR or comms people who think a press release is a front-line action in a crisis?

Agnes: Unfortunately, yes. However, a press release is a secondary means of communication. Not a primary. The only nuance to that is if in some situations, in some industries, the law-makers are so far behind that the press release is the only form of communication they accept. In those very rare cases, then the press release should be amongst the primary communications. But never the single primary communication.

BT: What do you think of holding statements that say something like “passenger safety is our number one priority” following a plane crash. It seems like an empty promise yet companies rely on communications like this all the time …

Agnes: I understand where it comes from, and it’s just so used. It’s like a press release – it’s just kind of adopted and been used so many times that people don’t question the status quo. There are better ways to communicate with emotional intelligence. For example, if your cyber security is breached and your company is a leader in cyber security, you might say “cyber security is a leading priority for the organisation” and then go into detail about what that means. I wouldn’t say, “cyber security is our top priority” when clients and the general public are dealing with their information being leaked.

“It’s not enough today to say, ‘we’re working on it’ or ‘we’re investigating and we’ll be back to you’. People expect and demand more than that.”Melissa Agnes

It’s about challenging the status quo. In this day and age, we can’t just take template communications drafted two, three, five, 10, 15 years ago. We have to think it through. There needs to be a strategy behind everything.

I had a client recently call me. They had an active shooter on their site, and they tweeted information. I said, “You realise that those in danger on your site were not on Twitter”. Twitter needed to be a secondary communication in this case. But for them, they thought, well, crisis communication needs to take place on social media. It’s always about understanding who you’re trying to communicate with, why you’re communicating with them, what they need from you and how you can reach them in a way that increases trust and credibility.

BT: How do you convince comms teams, especially those in a crisis situation, that they need to remember who the audience is and not necessarily repeat what their legal team is saying?

Agnes: They can be so used to speaking “business” when today we need to speak “human”. It’s more important than ever. How you do it is not waiting for a crisis or viral issue to strike before you start having those conversations internally.

BT: Do you have any suggestions for how companies in a crisis should deal with media inquiries?

Agnes: Ahead of time, they need to do two things. The first is develop strong relationships with the media that matter to your business. You get the benefit of the doubt in the crisis and you get the lead in. It’s “we’re about to publish this, do you have a comment?” rather than, “we just published this, what do you have to say about it?” You get credibility when you say, “listen, we’re still doing XYZ, I will come back to you with more information as soon as we have it”. They actually believe you and they will hold off, or they will quote that knowing it’s credible.

Relationships are essential to business and therefore to crisis management. The stronger your relationships with customers, the more benefit of the doubt you will gain in a crisis. It’s the same with investors, the market, the board, vendors and employees.

The second thing is nobody expects you to have all of the information right from minute zero of a crisis. What they expect is that you’re going to be aware. That you’re going to do the right thing, you’re going to care, you’re going to investigate, you’re going to gain answers, and that you’re going to communicate transparently and consistently.

You can plan by identifying your high-risk scenarios – the most likely high-impact issues and crises you’re most vulnerable or prone to. You can then say to the team, “if this were to happen tomorrow, we didn’t have all the information, what would be expected of us right out the gate and how can we meet those expectations?” You can have that messaging approved ahead of time – you’re not starting from scratch. You can then finalise it in the heat of the moment, and make sure the communications department and all of those stakeholder owners are very conscious about what is expected of the organisation in terms of those communications, and how to meet those expectations.

It’s not enough today to say, “we’re working on it” or “we’re investigating and we’ll be back to you”. People need – people expect and demand – more than that. “What are you doing? What have you done so far? What do you have confirmed right now? When will you have more information confirmed? Where will we find that? How can we trust that you’re going to come to us?” These are questions we can anticipate and foresee ahead of time, therefore there’s no reason we should not be prepared to answer them.

BT: It also helps if people see your business as a good corporate citizen. People aren’t necessarily going to jump to damaging conclusions immediately in a crisis, are they?

Agnes: Absolutely. Last year, a large US paper and pulp company had an explosion at one of its mills – the No.1 high-risk scenario for this type of organisation. The company took so long to communicate. And when I say “so long”, it was something like 12 or 18 hours for them to communicate post-explosion. In that time, the media dug up all of the history of the company that showed they skimmed around the edges when it came to the safety of their work environment at their mills. They gave the media that time to dig because they were silent.

In this case, they weren’t “crisis ready” because they didn’t respond effectively, they didn’t understand the reality of communication in times of crisis, and there was something to dig up. So it all runs in theme to me. It makes sense that this is 1 + 1 = 4.

BT: When you work with clients, do you usually identify that executives need media training?

Agnes: Yes, absolutely. There’s no reason why the entire C-suite team should not be media trained. If they get blind-sided on vacation, or walking in a parking lot to their cars, you want to make sure they know how to respond effectively and in line with the values and the messaging of the organisation. It’s essential.

Links & references

Melissa Agnes’s crisis management website with a link to how you can get her book

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