How to prepare for such a situation and how to untie this “knot” more quickly
Surprises are lurking everywhere. Crises are unwanted events which happen since they could not have been avoided. The reasons that have led to this inevitability may be many, and sometimes only one is enough. One wrongful word or phrase can cause a lot of trouble and even give power to the “butterfly effect” by causing a “tornado”.
Any organization may find itself in a crisis situation, regardless of its activity. There are many examples in Bulgaria and around the world. The food, pharmaceutical, transport, financial and military industries are considered the riskiest. But the potential danger hangs like a sword of Damocles over every business. The real crisis can be related to a system collapse or a collapse in trust, a manufacturing accident, a human casualty incident, huge financial losses... Crisis situations usually cannot be completely hidden, and they result in a wide media and public response.
Surprise, threat and limited response time are three of the characteristics of such an adverse event. A solution to the crisis has to be found and the sooner this happens, the less damages there are. Crises often lead to the restructuring of the organizations in which they have occurred, as well as to behavioural changes.
How do we protect ourselves from crises and what should we do when they are inevitable? How to prepare for such a moment, what are some of the rules of crisis management, who and how is supposed to lead the communication...
We present to you a conversation with three professionals who have extensive experience in this field. After finding vulnerabilities in most organizations, a year ago, they set up the Centre for Analyses and Crisis Communications.
Aleksandar Hristov, Managing Partner of Paragraph 42 PR Agency:
Be Ready for Unexpected Events
Mr. Hristov, how important is business communication in the modern world?
Communications are becoming more and more important since information is increasing, and communication management is linked to information flows. In the modern world, more and more crises take place precisely because of the lack of communication.
Let’s give an example...
Last year, there was a bright example with the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency, when the poor communication led to a crisis. A recent example of bad management is the reaction of the affected construction company when the “Apartmentgate” flared up just before the European elections.
What is the right approach – to have a team that is ready and knows how to respond in case of a crisis, or, at that moment, to find the right people who know how to do it?
The most important thing for overcoming any communication crisis is the preparation in advance. Every company should know that it may enter a crisis of various nature – from a manufacturing incident to a reputation crisis, which in fact is a threat to anyone. Therefore, the potential risks and the environment have to be monitored all the time. It was with this idea, monitoring and analyses, that the three of us, Daniel Kiryakov, Lyubomir Alamanov and I, created the Centre for Analyses and Crisis Communications.
As for the approach, it is important for the company to prepare a preliminary response to a possible crisis. There has to be a team that is prepared for such a situation. Chaotic actions should not be allowed. Readiness includes both strategy and statements for the media prepared in advance, which will facilitate taking appropriate actions.
What reactions should we be aware of?
Some managers are quick to make statements, others hide, and still others act out of emotions – and none of these options is acceptable. Communication must be well-founded and well-organized.
What kind of people should a team include when a crisis occurs?
It is good to include a representative of the management, a communications specialist and a professional from the company in crisis who knows the business well. It can also include an agency that can implement the crisis communication strategy.
What do you recommend to anyone who has not yet experienced such a trial?
The most important thing is to prepare. Not only with a strategy for a good response and crisis management, but also to have a psychological adjustment for such actions. Some crises have victims and casualties, and they are the most terrible.
While we were preparing the topic for the crisis communications, the scandal with the personal data, which leaked from the National Revenue Agency (NRA) after the hacking attack and the African swine fever broke out. How do you evaluate the communication of the relevant institutions at such a tense moment?
About the NRA crisis, as well as the African swine fever, we can simply say - non-communication is also communication. Untimely information, contradictory signals or silence give rise to spontaneous occurrences of ideas. Especially in the personal data crisis, which will probably have long-term consequences, there were also many elements of professional management, but the overall reaction was slow and slightly chaotic.
You created the Centre for Analyses and Crisis Communications about a year ago, are you under constant stress that you could be asked at any time to “pull the chestnuts out of the fire”?
That’s part of our profession, and we are ready for such a moment. Business people are focused on the specific company activity and the emergence of a crisis throws them off balance. That’s why the outside view of a crisis communications specialist allows for a more sober judgement of the situation. We now see how companies are more and more aware of the need for prevention, because crises become more common, they are developing faster and become more visible. That’s why more and more managers want to take action in advance.
They say there’s no bad advertising...
That’s a myth. It would be wrong to stick to such a postulate. If you are a rising star and the point is just to be talked about, it may be acceptable. But if you are a company that defends certain values and has a strong market presence, then your communication has to be well managed.
What kind of an asset is the good reputation?
This is an extremely valuable asset. In case of a crisis, consumers tend to perceive the information with more trust if the company has built up a good reputation.
What factor is digital connectivity in communication and crisis management?
It has a direct impact on the speed of information dissemination, which also affects the crisis management itself. Years ago, there was more time to react. Now, it is necessary to act immediately. Social networks and the Internet impose another approach. The delayed response leads to complications that are more difficult to get out of.
What happens after the crisis is overcome?
Restructuring work of the processes starts inside the company, but first, an analysis has to be made about how the crisis arose and how it was overcome. The leaking spot has to be found and procedures and rules have to be changed. The crisis itself shows what needs to be changed.
What are some of your rules for good communication and crisis response?
If there is a crisis, we have to find a way to talk with facts and make commitments. If you are not able to do something specific, just promise to carefully examine the situation and take the necessary steps to tackle the crisis. My advice is to show positivism and common sense. Avoid panic and uncoordinated actions.
What is your positive ending to this talk about crises and their management?
Crises are becoming more frequent, but communication professionals are getting better at their management. Prevention is a way not to hurt people, and this is even more important than good reputation itself.
Daniel Kiryakov, Communications Manager of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria:
Mr. Kiryakov, there is an attitude that crises are something, which happens to others. When do events disprove this overly optimistic view?
The illusory optimism disappears when the crisis comes upon us in a moment when we are not ready or when we succumb. In the first case, the organization has not done everything necessary to build a responsible and sustainable business, excellent relationships with all stakeholders, including communication. In the second – when emotions prevail.
We had a “hot” summer with two massive issues – the data leakage from the National Revenue Agency (NRA) and the African fever. Are you surprised by the way the crisis communications were conducted?
In both cases, the “surprise” was not unexpected. The African fever crisis, in all its aspects, shows the inability of the relevant state institutions to become more vigilant after the previous crises and to carry out prevention and protection measures for swine-breeding. Downplaying the problem, attempts for imprinting ideas and passing judgement before the investigation was over, as well as the physical absence of the NRA director are examples of poor communication and lack of respect for the citizens. Another thing is the lack of specific measures for the effective cybersecurity of personal data in the NRA and in Bulgaria.
Is there a universal way to keep the crises away?
As long as an organization invests intentionally and consistently in all its priority activities – yes, there is. This means that along its main activities (the so-called core business), it should also direct resources for communications.
Rules exist and they allow us to structure each communication strategy and budget wisely. But we have to take into account the specifics that each organization has. It is in crises that we see best how viable the organizations are. In such event, they show their values most prominently.
To what degree the good PR and good communication policy can protect an organization from a “fire”?
This is a necessary but insufficient condition. The good PR and communication policy build the image to a large extent and influence the reputation of the organization. If a communications specialist has earned the role of an adviser in the organization, then, they are also a factor in decision-making. They can signal about a potential risk and are the “whistle-blowers” of the organization.
If an organization is built on a good foundation and has sound rules, then the PR specialist will have fewer occasions for “fire-fighting.”
Here, we are talking about crisis communications, but in which case from the world practice you have said to yourself: I hope this won’t happen to me?
I can think of a few cases: the two Boeing 737 Max that fell down and the spill into the Gulf of Mexico. The aviation accidents, in which not even one living passenger remained on board, put one of the two world leaders in civil aircraft to the test. Working for such a company gives both prestige and tremendous burden. In the case with their crisis communications, Boeing demonstrated a certain amount of clumsiness, especially in the first incident, but in the second accident, it seemed like they had learned their lesson. The oil spill situation caused by British Petroleum has already become emblematic. First, with the organizational culture and the enormous pressure the platform team was exposed to. Second – the inadequate behaviour of the company’s executive director. “I want my life back” has become a refrain of egotism and the inability to take real responsibility for the damage to the environment that can neither be estimated nor recovered.
What are the Bulgarian examples of something rotten in the communication that you can indicate?
These include “well-orchestrated” campaigns against social NGOs in Bulgaria and local referendums against mining. Bulgarian examples are tragic in their own way. Regarding the local referendums against mining, I partially participated in one of them in Tran municipality and I was an observer of the other in the General Toshevo municipality. The formula is clear: the local population is scared of all sorts of consequences if extraction is allowed. In Tran, the poorest municipality in Bulgaria, revenues from tourism and agriculture were promised, but two years later, the main employer there was again the municipal administration. There is no eco-tourism or any other new business. In cases like these, crisis communications are powerless if they are led from the centre of Sofia. Field work is needed, as well as real examples.
You are the co-founder of the Centre for Analysis and Crisis Communications. During the last year, was there a great test for professionalism related to crises?
The three of us witnessed a number of communication crises and defects, especially on the part of the institutions. That is why, as valiant professionals, we went public with positions on key social issues. They had their communication implications, which we analysed and gave advice on. Some of the cases were discussed with colleagues during our open presentations and lectures in Sofia and Plovdiv.
What is your advice on a good communication policy?
It is a mix of elements, and at the core is the awareness of the management that communications are a management function. Then it’s easy: an engaged professional, a crazy and experienced agency, resources (they are always insufficient, but their effective investment is achievable), a communication plan that fits into the main activity of the organization, personal relation in both internal and external communications, use of social media, social awareness and responsibility, good interactions with institutions and an honest approach to the media.
Still, if there is a crisis, how can we minimize the losses?
First, we should not panic. And we should be honest with the public.
The rules you have made based on your experience...
Patience. Every mistake is an experience. Inappropriate comments and jokes are unthinkable when human destinies and the environment are affected. And most importantly – do not lie!
Lyubomir Alamanov, Managing Partner, SiteMedia Consultancy:
The Lack of Communication Creates Monsters
Mr. Alamanov, is it possible for any business to function without facing communication crises?
This is not possible today. That is why the question is how we prepare in advance. The world became fast and dynamic and crises are now part of everyday life. 10 years ago, they were rare, and organizations could afford to react slowly. The internet and social media have accelerated communication and sharing of information but also broadened the range of crises and became a prerequisite for them to become more frequent. People changed as well, they used to be passive consumers, and today the mass audience is an active participant. Information is quickly created and easily distributed, which is a big challenge to the affected parties.
Are the institutions prepared for an adequate crisis response? What did the data leakage from the National Revenue Agency (NRA) and the African swine fever indicate?
They have shown that the readiness for successful information campaigns in the event of a crisis is underestimated. The Bulgarian Food Safety Agency has not learned its lesson from the previous crisis, known as “Baba Dora and the Goats.” The data leakage case was also symptomatic. There were some good solutions, but the feeling that the administration was scurrying about and didn’t know what to do remained. The institutions have clearly not realized that we are already in the digital 21st century, where sooner or later mistakes are punished severely.
What is the “insurance” against crises?
There is no insurance. This is the same as asking if there is insurance against gravity. Crises do exist. Sometimes we can avoid them, and other times if we are well prepared we can minimize the damages done and overcome them more easily.
Some companies happen to fall into a crisis, and others do not. Which ones have this bad luck?
A risk assessment and analysis is performed and on its bases it is judged who could find themselves in such a situation. For example, companies that work with fast moving consumer goods and have numerous end-clients are in a higher risk of a crisis. Industrial accidents will not cease to happen. That is why the potential of occurrence of situations that require crisis communications much be assessed in advance.
What is a crisis today?
A crisis is an event that has the potential to cause harm to people and the environment, to affect the stakeholders of an organization and to affect the image of its products and services. Some crises never reach the outside world. On the other hand, crises are becoming more and more complicated. In their effort for overcoming them, PR specialists serve as coordinators of the internal team that is dealing with the crises. To minimize damages, communicators must liaise with all stakeholders – directly affected ones, as well as the internal audience, state and municipal authorities, syndicates, etc. Employees of the affected company must not learn about the development of the situation only from the media.
Why is it important to have this conversation?
Because people and organizations need to be more prepared for these moments. At some point, “change” was discussed as a single phenomenon, but today, it is a constant part of our lives. In the same way crises are not anymore a “black swan” that appears infrequently. They are a constant accompanying phenomenon. Prevention is an important part of the effort to make sure unwanted situations do not occur.
How can companies be prepared?
Some of the main rules for companies to get prepared are: to take good care of their reputation, to work constantly for their image. To have presence in social media, and not to remember this is something important only during a crisis. To keep good relationships with journalists as they react during crises and their reactions receive wide publicity. If the business was distant from the media, in a moment of crisis, the communication with journalists would be much more difficult.
What would you tell everyone that believes that crises are something that happens to others?
These are people that go outside without an umbrella in London when the weather is gloomy. Hails fall somewhere else but sometimes they destroy our own harvest. The lack of communications can also lead to a crisis.
What do we depend on to quickly return to our normal state when we are only visible with our positive initiatives?
This depends on a series of correct actions. It depends on how the management of the company will treat it – whether it would improve the processes and procedures in the organization. Reputation is like a big mountain – every day we make it bigger and bigger. When a crisis occurs, it takes a part of this mountain away. If the mountain is big, this would not drastically affect it. But if it is a small hill, it would disappear.
What made you create the Centre for analysis and crisis communications?
The three of us – my colleagues Kiryakov, Hristov, and I, have a lot of experience. We found out that together, we have over 60 years of experience in the field of communications. For a long time now, the tendency for more frequent crises has increased. But last year, there was an ongoing series of crises that involved many state institutions. We saw that the importance of prevention and good reaction during crises is not well understood. There are a lot of examples for this. We could mention the situation around Olympic Insurance Company, the communication for the Bonus-malus system, the Convention against domestic violence. Not to mention the incident where a vice prime minister became an ex-vice prime minister because of his inability to communicate with the mothers of children with disabilities.
There are also a lot of examples in which companies had a communication crisis. What should they do when this is already a fact?
Every crisis is unique and there is no universal remedy. One of the main recommendations is to admit that you are wrong, but for many people, it is difficult to say they have made a mistake. It all depends on the specific case.
Are you willing to manage the communications in a major crisis?
We are ready to help, of course. However, crises are not solved by individuals, but by big teams.
How do you gain experience?
We observe, research, never stop learning and approach each potential problem strategically. Part of the crises that are happening here have already happened somewhere across the world. It is important to make analogies and to apply good practices cleverly.
Which business crisis is an example for good communication and management to you?
Which was solved so quickly and skillfully that the mass audience never heard about it.
In this case, what is your advice – how to avoid crises or how to manage them quickly?
People are the most important, think about them first. Also, take care of good communications. The lack of communication creates monsters.