Strategic comms to keep from reeling in crisis

It is almost impossible to open the newspaper or scroll through the social media feed without coming across a story about some sort of crisis. Today it was food poisoning in a famous restaurant nearby. Yesterday it was a college football coach accused of sexual misconduct. And before that computer hacks that brought a few hospitals to their knees. The list goes on and on - economic fraud, mismanagement of funds, oil spills that destroyed natural habitats and endangered species, suicides in the workplace brought on by systemic bullying.

Events like these send organisations reeling. They affect employees and those who are supposed to benefit, like school children and patients. They damage trust in society and among donors and investors and they hurt brand reputation.

There are two points I’d like to make based on nearly 20 years of working in strategic communications, much of which has been spent dealing with some sort of crisis in a not-for-profit organisation:

1. What used to be viewed as a crisis, or as an individual incident, has turned into business as usual. This may be because people in general are more aware and are able to have a voice through social media, and anyone can create a story, real or fake, through various online outlets. This means that what is a spark lit by one person in one location quickly turns into a multitude of flames when others feel empowered to speak up.

2. The strategy required to manage the situation is usually referred to as a crisis communications strategy. But in my mind it really should just be strategic communications. And it should be deeply embedded throughout the organisation.

These “crises” are not occasional events any more. What has changed over the past few years is that these incidents once regarded as individual events have now become epidemic and can be found in all part of society. No public body, private corporation or non-profit organisation is immune. News about these incidents spread like wild fire with the assistance of social media and inspire other events to come to light.

Crisis plans and strategies that were once kept in a red folder in the back of a bookshelf to be pulled out when the fire was already ablaze, now need to be placed permanently on the desk as part of day-to-day communications in every organisation – and not only that, but be part of induction training with all new staff. Not only in the executive roles of an organisation or in the press office, but across departments. That is also exactly what I recommend clients who have been faced with challenging situations.

Over the last year I have worked as the strategic communications and media lead at the Independent Commission on sexual misconduct, accountability and culture change at Oxfam. The Commission was appointed by Oxfam in the aftermath of the Haiti sexual misconduct crisis to independently review all aspects of Oxfam’s culture, policies and practices relating to safeguarding.

It became clear that the incidents that had prompted the review where not isolated incidents, thus managed as an individual crisis, but proved to be part of the organisational culture. This suggests that communications efforts should be incorporated in the organisational communications strategy providing on-going guidance and security for leadership and staff.

It may prevent the organization from reeling and harming its brand, its loyal supporters, staff and most of all the people it is there to serve.