Communicating through a crisis

As construction machinery giant Caterpillar hits the headlines with a potential corporate crisis over its tax affairs, it seems timely to consider the role of crisis communications.

It’s not just the big boys who face damage to reputation.  Hitting the headlines over a negative situation is a risk for all businesses, large and small – often without fault on their part. Getting communications right at these times is critical to the ongoing reputation of a brand – and failure to handle comms well can mean the end of a business.


Ensure your voice is heard – and heard saying the right things

The most important thing is to be able to respond to allegations quickly, honestly and appropriately, to ensure your voice is heard by the right people – and that it’s heard saying things that matter.

Our role as consultants is to view a client situation objectively.  We aim to take the heat out of the issue with calm, considered and clear thinking.  Fact gathering is key.  Then comes strategy, clearly built as with all campaigns, on the objectives of the communication. 

What do we want to achieve? What do we need to counter? What do we need to say? How do we need to respond? How can we counter rogue allegations without sounding aggressive or defensive?  How can we demonstrate brand values and genuine concern to mitigate damage when fault may be involved?

These questions are always tackled as a consultancy team as well as with the client of course, all working together looking at the core issue from different perspectives and backgrounds.

Audience identification is paramount.  A client may focus on the obvious issue they have to deal with, such as a journalist call. But once negative information makes its way into the public domain the audience analysis quickly becomes more complex – customers, staff, suppliers, banks, investors, neighbours, political stakeholders. When do we need to speak with them, what do we need to say to each and how can we speak with them effectively?

In today’s digital world, bad news travels fast – and often isn’t accurate.  React too slowly and reputation can be unfairly damaged in the blink of an eye.  That reaction has to be thought through, not knee-jerk though. Get it wrong and damage can reach even further.


Planning and action

A clear plan of action and responsibilities and close consultation as events unfold ensures every aspect of comms is covered and brand damage mitigated as far as possible.

Understanding the media and the myriad audiences is paramount and our team of former news journalists and editors are pivotal in the logistics process. They draft statements and briefings, they ensure comms are delivered to all audiences, they liaise, fact gather, consult, brief and advise.

It’s always tough and demanding for everyone involved, especially for a client in the heat of the issue.  That’s why all our retained clients have 24/7 crisis comms call out.  That might just involve a phone call to talk an issue through or in the worst cases it might demand a full-blown crisis comms team mobilisation.

We strongly recommend all clients go through a crisis planning process – always accepting that it’s unlikely that the nightmare will become a reality.  Often on appointment a client will say they don’t think they have a high level of risk.  Discussions almost always result in an increased risk analysis.

For the vast majority of clients, that planning and training process need not be complex or expensive.  The level of complexity is a response to the complexity of business operations and level of risk associated with those.


The impact

Drafting this post just hours after the announcement of raids at three of the Caterpillar sites in the US, stocks dropped by more than 4%.

That’s just the start of an allegation process which could go on and on and ultimately, of course, end in a hugely-damaging action – damaging from a legal and financial perspective, of course – but also damaging to the reputation of this iconic brand.