Sunsail has been in the news for the wrong reasons this month, accused of not showing “an ounce of compassion” to the family of a girl who died on one of its holidays. This case highlights how important it is for companies to adhere to certain principles when communicating through a crisis.
If the worst happens and you’re in knee-deep, how you conduct yourself over the immediate minutes and hours will have a significant impact on the crisis outcome and your company’s reputation. As Sunsail illustrates, it is also essential to be seen doing the right thing many years later.
Hopefully, your business has a well-rehearsed emergency response plan* (ERP) that you can dig out and put straight into action (if not, we recommend getting in touch with our team so we can help you sleep better at night). To be up to the job of protecting your reputation, an ERP communications process needs to be based on the following principles:
Be ready to communicate immediately
You may very quickly find yourself on the receiving end of intense media scrutiny, with journalists calling and emailing to get the facts of what has happened. The circumstances will dictate if you should issue information before it is requested, or whether it is better to handle media requests reactively. In either scenario, you must be the first to issue all the known facts. If you let others beat you to it, you’ll immediately lose credibility and control of the information.
Prioritise affected parties
Information must be fed directly to affected parties before it is released elsewhere. Don’t leave employees, families or angry customers struggling to find the facts – make sure they receive information first-hand before they hear it from anybody outside of the business. In the case of families, find out if you can liaise with them directly or need to go through an official intermediary, such as the police. Getting this right is a key obligation.
Be humane and show compassion and emotion in your communications. Being compassionate is not admitting liability and demonstrating emotion is not showing weakness. A genuine, heartfelt response to a crisis situation will demonstrate that you care and that you are invested in the welfare of those affected. This will show the decency that all parties would hope for in your organisation.
Tell the whole truth
You must give the media the full facts, or else you’ll create a vacuum that will be filled on your behalf, potentially with misinformation and erroneous accounts. Nothing keeps a story on the front pages better than the slow disclosure of new facts. Give the media everything you have in one go and then provide further updates as soon as fresh information emerges.
Fix the problem
Once the immediate storm has abated, you need to start the process of understanding and fixing the cause. This may demand that uncomfortable truths emerge within the business and that pain and embarrassment are felt, but a responsible management team has no other option. It may be necessary to engage external help to get a full account of where failings occurred. Once you have a handle on the situation, let those affected know and keep them in the loop with further updates. If the media ask, tell them what happened and what you are doing in response.
Remember, you’re never off the hook
The Sunsail case has strong echoes of the way Thomas Cook behaved towards the relatives of children killed on holiday by carbon monoxide poisoning. Both cases involved lengthy legal aftermaths and saw reputational damage occur a long time after the tragic deaths. Companies need to abide by the above principles, particularly in showing humanity, at all stages of crisis, including many years later.
The billionaire investor Warren Buffett was able to capture the essence of effective crisis communications in just a few words: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Worth remembering.