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  • Beryl Aidi

Being the news when you least want to be

Big news! It’s breaking, you’re in it and you don’t want it


News! Breaking news! Who doesn’t want it, especially when it is all about you? It is free publicity. It gives you mileage. Except when you don’t want to be in or to be the news. And that is when news becomes a crisis or worse, a scandal.


Entities, be they organizations, private companies, academic or even religious institutions do well to have a crisis communication policy and strategy. It is not about being ready if a crisis happens but being ready for when it happens. Whether it is the making of the institution due to an incident it created or due to external factors, when crisis strikes, it is not the time to scamper around looking for how to respond.


No immunity

No one is immune to crises and there are tons of examples what to do and what not do in crises. Many times what is readily visible is what not to do when a crisis strikes. Some could have crippling effects on the affected institutions or just leave a tainted reputation of an otherwise great institution.


There is no immunity to when a crisis may hit an institution. We have seen how that played out in the media in the recent past with giant charity organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty International and even the BBC becoming the news on a few occasions. However the ones that are prepared for any eventualities can prevent or minimize the chances of the crisis turning into a scandal. By the time a crisis becomes a scandal, it is almost too late as the damage has been done. And scandals have a way of taking lives of their own from all quarters, especially in the era of social media. Suddenly, everyone has an opinion, and quickly, things disintegrate into hellish chaos.


Anatomy of poorly handled crisis

An anatomy of a poorly handled crisis might take the shape of a misstep by a staff member, an executive or an affiliate. It can come from all kinds of activities from discrimination to sexual misconduct or worse, abuse, and anything in between like corruption, toxic work environments or double standards. The list is endless.


Some institutions resort to no response at all or a very cavalier attitude which only fuels the crisis more as social media conspiracy theories sprout and the crisis takes a scandalous life of its own. If it stinks, which often is the case, the ill-prepared institution might be tempted to ignore it either making light of it or by assuming that it will blow over on its own, especially if they deem it not to be true. Or some others do a quick in-house cleaning job and cover up when they first discover the potential crisis hoping it will not be exposed to the public.

However, the only best kept secret is the one held by one person. Sooner or later information leaks and then blows up into a nightmare, starting as rumor, or a fringe social media post or breaking news with “credible sources” depending on where it first gets out. It then becomes a media circus, at which point it is already too late for an institution caught flatfooted.


The crisis escalates to a can of worms as more “scandals” especially when staff and former staff begin to talk in interviews or during investigations that usually come much later. More often than not, revelations that paint the institution unfavorably come out of these staff sources. Descriptions such as racism, discrimination , toxic work environments, bullying or spiral of silence feature in many of these interviews. There are a myriad of accusations that can fly from all directions or just one huge misdeed. The crisis can turn into a ginormous snowball or hurricane that destroys everything in its way in the worst-case scenario.


Strategy

An institution risks reputation damage, distrust with its constituents, loss of credibility and revenue either by way of funding or client base which could end disastrously, disrupt its operations or totally paralyze the institution.


A strong reputation, just like a strong building takes a lot of resources to build but can be ruined in a matter of seconds.


A crisis communication strategy is thus a priority and not an afterthought. What should a crisis communication output look like?


There should be sincere acknowledgement of the incident, where victims or survivors are involved, focus should be on them rather than the organization. In the fall out after the Oxfam incident, some reports accused the communications to focus on themselves rather than the victims.


Further, in your communications you should be responsive, show empathy to those affected, be honest and truthful while being mindful of the privacy of all involved as your duty of care.


No one is immune; therefore it is better to be prepared. If you would like to find out more how to develop your crisis communications plan, please do not hesitate to contact us.


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