by Tom Horn

When crisis strikes, who should you call first: your communications team, or your lawyers? That was the focus of the CommsCon panel debate that brought together some of Australia’s leading experts in crisis management, including:

  • Ava Lawler, Managing Director, Weber Shandwick
  • Stephen von Muenster, Principal, DVM Law
  • Nicole McKechnie, Director of External and Corporate Communications, Telstra
  • Robyn Sefiani, Managing Director, Sefiani Communications Group

Although the answer came swiftly (it doesn’t matter who you call first, as long as you call both quickly – in case you were wondering), it didn’t stop a fascinating and hugely informative conversation. But rather than a tug-of-war between the two sides, the panel came together to tackle some of the big questions that plague every business when thinking about the challenge of managing a crisis.

In case you didn’t make it along, here are the three key points from the session that you shouldn’t be without

1. Don’t underestimate the importance of planning

The age old saying a failure to plan is a plan to fail is certainly a truism when it comes to crisis comms. However, the panel highlighted that the real value of a proactive plan is much greater than simply avoiding failure.

Planning for crisis before crisis strikes opens opportunities. Ava Lawler highlighted that, as well as helping anticipate potential issues, a well prepared crisis plan gives you the ability to quickly align your business and advisers around an issue.  It ensures that a lot of the preparatory work – assigning responsibilities, providing logistical resources, preparing spokespeople – is done, enabling you to focus on the issue at hand and responding with a considered and well-structured strategy.

However, a plan is only as effective as it is current. It should enable you to be nimble and agile in a crisis. But for it to do this effectively, you must review, trial and update it regularly to keep it relevant and your crisis management team ‘match fit’.

2. Commit to getting the right information

Information is critical to responding effectively in a crisis situation. But getting all the information takes time, a virtue that is in short supply in a crisis.

What is most important is compiling the facts – the hard information that can be used to accurately assess the situation, the risks it presents and begin framing the messages and strategy for response. Stephen Von Muenster insightfully pointed out that “…as well as understanding what you know, it’s just as important to be aware of what you don’t know. This enables your initial messaging to take that into account and avoid any misconceptions”.

It’s hugely important to continually update and add to the information base you’re working from throughout the crisis. Social monitoring tools are critical to doing this from a conversational perspective, but it’s also important to have someone on-the-ground continuing to collect facts. This gives you the insight you need to continually review messages, and adapt them to address new issues as they develop.

3. Respond quickly

In a crisis, things move fast and the facts aren’t always clear. It’s tempting to hold back out of fear that responding could make things worse. However, acting quickly is your best defence.

It was a point that the panel discussed at length. All agreed that, even if you aren’t able to say much, responding quickly to show that you’re aware of, and acting on the situation is extremely important. The panel summed it up well in agreeing that “A good decision made on a Tuesday is better than a perfect one made on a Sunday”.

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet – legal or comms – when it comes to handling a crisis scenario. The nature of the circumstances and the issue at hand, as well as the events that follow, dictate what’s needed to respond effectively. However, incorporating the above elements into your planning and thinking will put you in a strong position to take action should crisis strike.

Tom Horn is an Associate Director in Weber Shandwick Sydney’s Corporate practice. 

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