Crisis Communication

2 November 2018
crisis communication

Crisis communication

Sooner or later, all companies are faced with a crisis situation. Whether it is a start-up or a multinational, the crisis situation is an obligatory, formative step that allows all companies to project themselves forward by identifying their strengths and weaknesses. The company that would deny having already had to face a crisis, or that would deny having to face it at some point, would be a company in error. Whether it is as a result of a common complaint from several consumers about a product or service that does not meet expectations, or because of a communication from the company that is considered inappropriate or even contrary to morality, all companies, regardless of the sector of activity, are experiencing a real crisis situation that it is important to manage as quickly and in the best possible way, at the very least in the least worst way.

However, not all companies have the same approach to a crisis situation. Obviously, each company implements different means, those it considers more appropriate and essential at the end of this delicate period. Clearly, there is no perfect way out of a crisis that is affecting your business. Nevertheless, we will give you, in the following lines and paragraphs, the three main strategies that can be implemented to get out of a crisis that affects your company. A quick warning before you start: take the time to properly identify how your company operates to find out what strategy is best suited to meet your expectations and needs.

1) The recognition strategy

This first strategy that we will discuss here is really the one most often found in the crisis communication plan implemented by many companies. The strategy of recognition consists in simply and as quickly as possible admitting the problems that are being blamed on the company and acknowledging the existence of this crisis that is currently affecting it. This strategy can be interesting from the moment the press reports a scandal affecting a company before the company has even had time to communicate about it. This is the perfect proof that the company has misanticipated this crisis that is affecting it and that it is lagging behind as soon as the crisis appears. In this particular situation, the company has no choice but to show its white paw and shed light on a case that could very quickly turn into a national or even international media scandal.

The implementation of this particular strategy must therefore meet several criteria. During all these stages of the recognition strategy, the company must be aware that it is essential to move quickly, to react quickly to all the external requests and events that will occur during the implementation of its communication in a crisis situation. As a first step, the company must therefore determine the extent of the crisis and the root causes that led to such a situation. This step back is essential to succeed in getting out of a bad situation quickly, but also to identify the means and resources that will have to be implemented to successfully emerge from the crisis. Then comes the time for communication. Communication that must be as clear and effective as possible. As part of this step, several alternatives are then available to the company:

– Fully acknowledge the company’s responsibility in the crisis that affects it and assume all its future consequences (compensation for victims, contractual breaches with several stakeholders, consequences on the company’s image, etc.);

– Highlight a major misunderstanding about the root causes of this crisis (the strategy adopted by Volkswagen, which has led to a real ordeal for the company);

– Allocate responsibility for the current crisis with other stakeholders (unattentive suppliers, customers who want to harm the company…);

– Denounce the crisis that affects the company by accusing the targeted managers, until they definitively leave it (the well-known case of the Kerviel affair following the crisis that affected Société Générale, for example);

– Contingent the crisis on a particular product or service, in order to highlight the fact that the company has only made mistakes on an isolated product or service.

2) The lateral project

This strategy was initially developed by Thierry Libaert in one of his books, Communication de crise, published in 2001 by Dunod. This true specialist in communication in crisis situations is now widely consulted by companies in all sectors, companies that want to give themselves every opportunity to face future crises that are already reaching out to them.

The central principle of this lateral project strategy is to seek to change the perspective adopted by all stakeholders on the crisis affecting your company. If, for example, your company is at the heart of a widespread dissatisfaction with a marketed product, the idea of this lateral project strategy will be to promote the consideration of environmental issues in the production of the good in question. The focus of the debate must therefore be shifted to other issues that are less likely to jeopardize the development of your company, or even issues that may be to your company’s advantage. This is not a blatant lie to talk about something else while your company is in the eye of the storm, but a communication strategy to highlight topics other than the bad step your company is taking, but topics that still affect your company in depth. It should be noted, however, that all the elements highlighted in your crisis communication must be tangible and verifiable. If so, your company will soon sink even deeper into this delicate situation.

Here again, several alternatives can be put into practice as part of your lateral project strategy:

– Opt for the frontal counter-attack and highlight the fact that the crisis that affects you directly benefits your competitors or one of your competitors. This strategy is most often used by large French companies to promote the disappointments of international competition;

– Transfer the causes of the crisis that affects you to the administration or the political context to exonerate your company from any direct responsibility;

– Communicate massively on a completely different level, as in the example we took previously concerning the possibility of promoting the respect of the environment implemented by your company within the framework of its production processes

– Emphasize the fact that, even if the crisis is real, the worst has been avoided and that the consequences could have been completely different and much more serious.

3) The strategy of refusal

The last strategy that can be put into practice in the context of your crisis communication is the refusal strategy. As its name suggests, the primary objective of this particular strategy is to affirm that there is no crisis, that the situation is following its normal course and that under no circumstances is the company in a delicate situation that could jeopardize its future development. Clearly, the strategy of refusal is not the one that will be recommended to a company still in the development phase and which would not enjoy a certain notoriety. This strategy is to be reserved for large companies that already have a real community around them, a community that can bring together new people even in complicated times. This posture is obviously rather difficult to maintain in the long term. The company must rely on tangible elements (figures, data, statistics, etc.) to justify its claims. If so, and if the company is not able to provide tangible evidence of what it stands for, the consequences can be truly catastrophic, and there are many examples to illustrate this risk that must absolutely be taken into account.

There are four possibilities for companies wishing to implement this refusal strategy:

– Remain silent throughout the implementation of the strategy, from the very beginning of the pseudo-crisis. For example, during the tragedy of the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the Russian authorities very quickly decided not to say anything, to keep quiet in order to hide the reality of this crisis, with the dramatic consequences we are all aware of…

– Opt for the cessation of communicative speech from a given moment on. For example, a company in the midst of a crisis may decide to communicate only once, giving the information it deems necessary. Afterwards, the company no longer communicates and moves towards the first alternative mentioned above, that of taking refuge in silence.

– Put forward a communication strategy that is similar to that used by Volkswagen: blame it on several people, until you no longer know who gave the initial order. This alternative, known as the missing link, aims to move up the company’s ladder until it is no longer clear who is really directly responsible for the current crisis.

Clearly, the crisis communication strategy of refusal is a truly perilous strategy. To take the risk, your company must be “upright in its boots”, have all the elements necessary for its defence and put them forward in a thoughtful way, according to the stakeholders who attack your company and want to make it sink further. Be careful then to take the necessary distance, if you wish to put this strategy into practice, in order to avoid sinking further into a crisis whose way out would then only be remote.

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