Comment: Good leadership is crucial to navigating a crisis

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern has been highlighted by Todd as a good leader. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images).New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern has been highlighted by Todd as a good leader. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images).
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern has been highlighted by Todd as a good leader. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images).
If recent crises and their aftermath have taught us anything, it is that a leader’s actions and comments before, during and after a crisis are absolutely critical to gaining support and understanding as the organisation works towards recovery or resolution.

Or to put it another way, you’re aiming for more New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and rather less UK leader Theresa May.

Good leaders understand that, while their teams may instinctively seek to batten down the hatches, their role is to ensure that the business is as prepared as possible, has an agreed response plan in place, and – crucially – a plan for recovery to allow the business to continue to operate.

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This is even more important in this world of instant news consumption. The reality is that your audiences can be watching a crisis unfold before it is even on your organisation’s radar. These individuals may even be the ones to tell you about it. As result, expectations are now extremely high as to how a company responds to, and communicates throughout, a crisis. And for most organisations, that means they need a leader who can communicate quickly, clearly, and with empathy.

What are the most common leadership mistakes during a crisis?

Failing to have a plan in place is frighteningly common. Almost half of businesses are guilty of sticking their head in the sand for crisis planning, in the mistaken belief that you cannot plan for every crisis, so why bother? But this is unwise when you consider the sobering fact that 82 per cent of businesses report loss of revenue and brand value as a result of a crisis.

Many businesses don’t think about what could go wrong. You can never think of everything, but this exercise is important because it helps the business understand what they will need from both a communications and a business contingency planning perspective in the event of a crisis. It also serves to educate your key managers on what types of issues could turn into a true crisis requiring external communications. This could be anything from delayed projects, and loss of investors, through to more dramatic incidents such as fire or floods. Make that list.

Failure to identify and train spokespeople before a crisis hits is another common oversight. A wise leader has already selected the calmest heads and most credible spokespeople when the crisis chips are down. It’s important to choose wisely and think about channels, too. Responding before you have all the facts should be avoided. One of the best weapons in fighting potential reputational damage is arming your spokespeople, then your audiences, with the facts. The first task is to figure out what those are – if you can’t get the answers quick enough, identify a process for getting them. Then, decide how much of this information you can communicate publicly. More is usually better, but you have to consider legal and other restrictions. If this applies, explain why and set out the timescales.

Failing to switch off marketing and sales activities can also land you in hot water. We have all seen inappropriate or badly timed marketing messages from a company during a crisis. Make sure you have a process in place to suppress all but essential messaging until the crisis is over. It’s a good idea to have a stripped-back website ready to be published quickly with all unnecessary promotional information removed. This stays hidden from public view until it is needed.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of building up goodwill with key stakeholders and media – before you’re in the eye of the storm. By acting fairly and transparently, communicating a sense of your values and the benefits you offer your employees, customers and other key audiences, and showing responsiveness on the small stuff, people will forgive you more quickly when something goes wrong. Your teams will thank you too.

Clare Todd, communications consultant at Perceptive Communicators

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