Plenty has been written and said about the communication response to last month’s Dreamworld tragedy. I’m not going to comment on the specifics of that situation, but it highlighted that no organisation or business is immune to the risk of a crisis.
It’s also worth reminding ourselves that small day-to-day issues that remain unaddressed have the potential to grow into catastrophes.
When I work with businesses on addressing serious problems that have spilled into the public arena, I find the vast majority could have been avoided if the organisation had recognised and managed the issue early on. Instead, it seems to be a default position to look the other way and pretend it’s not happening. Even when an issue is recognised, it’s tempting to blame someone else rather than stepping up and taking action.
Rather than waiting until an issue spirals into crisis, it makes more sense to take action before something goes badly wrong. Prevention is better than crisis.
Taming negative issues starts with having great relationships
While it’s true that some large-scale disasters can’t be predicted, making sure you have outstanding relationships with everyone in your ecosystem of influence is a critical first step in identifying negative issues early and being able to quickly address them.
Everyone in our circle and network can be impacted by what we do and say, and those actions have an ongoing ripple effect further into our ecosystem.
Take a look at your network and pinpoint the key relationships that can impact or be impacted by your organisation.
In the past, we used to do a “stakeholder analysis” in a very linear fashion. We’d put our organisation in the middle of a circle or on the top level of a chart, and have lines flowing out or down to our stakeholders.
However, today’s networked world is more like an ongoing grid, where our so-called stakeholders interact with each other and their own networks as well as us.
Either way, certain people and groups have the potential to have a higher impact on - or be more seriously impacted by - the actions of your organisation. It’s a good exercise to map these out. Really think about those relationships and how much time you spend nurturing them. Do you know what those groups need from your organisation? Are you making sure you’re meeting their expectations?
Hand in hand with that, you must maintain outstanding communication at all times.
Get your messages across the first time - every time - to prevent confusion, misunderstanding, offence, anger, time-wasting or people simply taking the wrong action. Regardless of job description, it’s never been more important for everyone in your business to have solid written and verbal communication skills.
Fostering outstanding relationships and communicating well with your ecosystem will go a long way towards preventing niggling negative issues from taking root and growing.
At the same time, you need to be on a constant lookout for emerging issues.
As I’ve said, many so-called crises are completely preventable. It needs to be someone’s role to continually scan your organisation inside and out to ensure that promises are delivered on and issues addressed promptly. Think of issues as little weeds that must be plucked out before they get a stranglehold.
Be aware of what’s being said about your business in the external environment, including on social media. That doesn’t mean you need to respond to every comment, but it’s important to first know what’s being posted so you can then consider whether to respond.
Some organisations even choose to ignore negative comments on their own social media pages, and that can be a recipe for disaster. Be authentic, correct misinformation and address comments that could harm your organisation’s reputation.
The key here is alertness and vigilance. Take small steps to stop small issues growing. It’s much easier to do that in the early stages than to battle a full-scale problem that’s grown out of proportion.
Cover the bases
It’s a reality that you can’t control what other people say, think and do. Even with your best efforts, some issues might get away from you.
If a problem has blown up, leave the spin doctoring to the politicians. You should first cover all your communication bases - and not just the obvious ones. Go back to your ecosystem of influence and identify who is most affected. Ensure you’re communicating directly with them through a channel they can easily access.
The true test for an organisation when responding to a major issue is whether they can be authentic, transparent and stay true to their values. That groundwork is laid long before an issue arises, so it pays to get the inside of your organisation right. Know what you stand for, and be sure that all responses during an issue are consistent with that.
If you’ve made a mistake, own it. Explain what happened, what you’re doing about it and what will happen next. Don’t wait until the problem flares up before taking action.
Manage issues well, and you’ll be building reputation capital along the way. Get it wrong and you’re likely to find yourself standing out – but for all the wrong reasons.