Crisis management in an age of declining trust

business trust

Edelman released their 2017 Trust Barometer research on 15 January 2017.  The research makes striking reading. It reveals the largest ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs since Edelman commenced tracking trust levels against this segment in 2012.

For me it reflects the growing reality that public concern on the ethical behaviour of businesses and corporations as well as increased growth in public engagement on a range of societal, political, economic issues has produced something of a perfect storm.  

That storm has manifested itself in the form of a rise in citizen activism against businesses and brands through the growth of digital and social media. The net result is that today the actions, values and behaviour of businesses is under more public scrutiny than at any time in our history.  

What this means in practice is that in an environment of declining trust in businesses combined with a rise in citizen activism through social media the risk of crisis and issues management is increasing.  I believe this in turn demands a more proactive and structured approach to both safeguard and enhance business reputation and promote increased stakeholder trust.

At Boardroom level there is growing awareness of this which is reflected in the inclusion of more crisis and reputation management issues and more time spent on these issues. At the heart of this is the key question of how a business can prevent, prepare in advance for and manage a crisis in an age of declining public trust.  

Below I offer six of my strategic tips to address that question in light of the Edelman 2017 Trust Barometer findings.

Prevention is always better than cure

The best approach to crisis management is preventing a crisis before it happens.  In reality though this can be something of a utopia in so far as you can never predict every single crisis that may ever happen in your organisation. There will always be external factors that can create a crisis that could not have been predicted with the best will in the world.  Nonetheless I do believe that a strategic, proactive structured and collaborative mechanism for managing reputation risk has huge value.  One way that this can be done in practice is through a crisis horizon scanning working group.

Often it is only when an organisation takes the time to critically look at the detail of their business processes, organisation culture, policies, governance, procurement and supplier relations, manufacturing processes and employee relations that it will identify reputational risks that could result in a crisis.  It is crucial that membership of the horizon scanning working group is from all business unit areas in the organisation and all grades of staff and that you secure genuine buy-in and engagement from all members. 

We need to remember too that often it will be staff at lower grades who can see risks that senior management do not have sight of.   Reputational risks identified through the horizon scanning working group should be communicated to the Board with minimum bureaucracy. A collaborative approach to managing the risk that draws on all the skills and experience in the organisation will add the most value and ensure sustainability in management of the risk.

Recognise that public perception is the only reality

The public perception of the crisis is what you have to manage. This applies regardless of whether that perception is factually accurate.  It is a mistake to think all you have to do is establish the facts and communicate them effectively.  Indeed often what you will find is that managing the emotions generated by a crisis is often more important than managing the crisis itself.  In terms of crisis communication messaging strategy what this means is that you cannot just communicate the facts.

Your crisis and corporate communications must also generate changed public perception, promote trust in your organisation and neutralise emotion and that is where the real skill rests visual imagery, psycholinguistics, showing empathy and body language will all play a key role in this. Apologise early if you were in the wrong.

Media spokesperson identification and training

As far as possible identify in advance who in your organisation are the best people to be spokespersons are for each crisis scenario identified in your crisis plan.  As a general rule of thumb if death, serious health or environmental risk or destruction of property is involved often the Chief Executive will be the best spokesperson to reflect the seriousness of these issues.  However, avoid falling into the trap of always putting a Chief Executive up as a spokesperson as not all crises justify that.

Often there will be other senior people who are closer to the crisis and better placed to be a spokesperson.  A key factor in the identification of spokespersons is the ability to see the wider strategic picture, show empathy and have strong emotional intelligence awareness.  

These are traits and skills that cannot be easily taught through a standard training course.  Tailored mentoring in these soft skills for spokespersons can add value but will usually need to be on a long term basis to develop and strengthen these softer skills.

In terms of spokesperson training first identify the types of crisis that may happen in your organisation.  You will never identify them all but try to identify the most common ones.  Then conduct mock media interviews regularly as part of an integrated process to develop spokesperson confidence and skills in handling a crisis in advance. Mock crisis media interviews should be held at least every quarter to ensure skills are kept “fresh” and up-to-date and should include both “soft” and “hard” likely journalistic questioning on the crisis issue.

When carrying out mock interviews, look to see whether your spokespeople look nervous. Does their body language match what they are actually saying? Does their body language communicate confidence and control of the crisis? If body language does not match verbal delivery, the public will subconsciously pick up on this. That in turn results in confidence erosion in the message delivery.

Body language awareness and mentoring for spokespersons provided it is tailored to the individual can be a worthwhile investment. Similarly mock interview practice and media training should equally also aim to eliminate filler words from interview question responses.

These are words and phrases such as ‘um’, ‘am’ and ‘uh’, etc that people use often when they are thinking of what to say next or caught off guard.  Overuse of filler words can subconsciously make a spokesperson sound unsure in their media response and confidence in message delivery and media handling is key in a crisis situation.

Live out your core values through response and crisis messaging

In an age of declining public trust in organisations and the consequent rise of citizen activism through the growth of social media organisations need to be increasingly authentic. The public can easily spot when an organisation says one thing but acts in a different way.  The only sustainable way for you to become authentic as an organisation is by living out your organisational core values both through your actions and policy design as well as through your crisis message design and delivery. 

Ensure your actions in a crisis and also your crisis messaging aligns tightly with your core values.  Equally capitalise on the value of sentiment analysis software in a crisis and indeed normal day to day business operations. Track sentiment towards your organisation, industry and on political and societal issues. This is because public opinion on social values and norms, political issues and corporate social responsibility issues never remains static. 

As public opinion evolves on a range of societal, political and business ethics issues so to must your organisational values, culture and actions evolve to align with that.  In doing this it can help reduce corporate reputation and crisis risk as a result. Sentiment analysis tracking can play a strategic role in this process.

Ensure the crisis plan is a living document

Many organisations will produce a crisis management plan but few organisations will update it regularly and by regularly I mean at least monthly after Board and Executive meetings.  Corporate and reputation risk never remain static they are constantly evolving and changing through external factors and internal decisions and actions.  The Board will usually be presented with a Corporate Risk register update at each monthly meeting. 

When the Board are presented with the corporate risk register they make decisions on the risks identified.  The crisis plan therefore needs to align with those views and decisions so that the decision and direction of the Board in respect of corporate and reputational risk are aligned with the content of the crisis plan to be effective and up to date. The crisis plan needs to be updated after each monthly Board meeting.  I believe we need to now move to a position where updating the crisis plan monthly becomes standard business practice just as updating the corporate risk register monthly is.

Capture learning and refine crisis response

After a crisis meet as a team to discuss what worked well and what didn’t. There will always be lessons to be learnt.  Identify those lessons and formally record them on the organisations systems.  Staff can leave an organisation and take with them the lessons they learnt from a crisis.  The organisation needs to capture and apply that learning and knowledge for future crises and this is why it is important to document the lessons learnt in the event that key staff do leave. 

The culture and environment in which this is done is clearly important.  To be more specific it should be a blame free environment, open, honest and incorporate the views of all staff regardless of grade with this approach supported vocally by the Board and senior management.

An independent assessment by a reputation management specialist on how the crisis was managed can add value. They will often see issues that you may miss. Equally capturing and incorporating the views of all stakeholder of the organisation regarding the crisis is important. Once learning is captured it should be integrated into future business crisis and issues management strategy and planning.

Johnny McGinley