How can business leaders best respond to a crisis in their company?

Columnists | Employment & Skills
Rita Trehan

Rita Trehan helps Fortune 500 companies and large corporations worldwide to improve operational efficiency, performance, consistency, and profits. In her latest Business Leader column she discusses how business leaders can best respond in a crisis. 

Managing a crisis is complex, from how you deal with your public image with customers, investors and the wider community to how you handle the aftermath with your people.

It’s often common to confuse significant issues with a crisis but the reality is the two are different. Put simply in cases where a significant issue surfaces, companies have the time to investigate, look at options and make a decision, a crisis however requires some level of immediate response.

The bottom line is that any organisation at some point in time, may find themselves dealing with a crisis, and as a leader, you will need to take action and you will need to take the initiative quickly. So, how can you best respond? What should you do? And where should you start?

Begin by ensuring you have considered what you might do in the case of a crisis – be proactive. Most large companies have Emergency Preparedness Plans in place and often carry out drills to test whether their processed plans work in practise.

The same should apply to thinking about how you might deal with the type of crisis you might find yourself facing. From what you would need to do if you had to do a major product recall because of health risks, to a significant fraud revelation, or a situation that lead to the loss of many lives. Understanding and having a game plan for what “might be” is a good starting point.

In addition to having an easily accessible plan for key team members, identifying dedicated ‘crisis spokespeople’ can be very beneficial. Once these basics have been settled; I’d recommend the following:

Communicate, communicate, communicate

We’ve heard it all before about how top communication is a precursor to top results. Ensuring that those that need to be informed (such as customers, investors, employees, suppliers) are kept fully up-to-date at the earliest opportunity will reduce the opportunity for false assumptions being circulated.

Your people are key. Engaging with them early not only helps address any anxieties they may have, and stop any speculation that may be starting to manifest. They can also be your greatest ambassadors if they understand what is going on and how the company is tackling the crisis.

Most importantly, leaders need to keep communicating to all their stakeholders, and not fall back on thinking that an initial dialogue is sufficient. This will help to maintain a certain level of trust that your stakeholders have come to expect from you.

In addition to how to communicate, the ‘when’ is a vital factor also. My one piece of advice that I would give to all leaders is don’t tempted to believe that solving the crisis and then communicating is the right way to approach the crisis. Frankly, it is not. There is an insatiable thirst for news stories nowadays and businesses need to act so they do not become headline news.

Be honest and prepare to apologise

CEOs need to be prepared to apologise and not be afraid in doing so. When it is clear that there is been some level of mistake or mishandling by the company, acknowledging that the company has acted outside of the organisation’s values or against their mission is imperative.

By holding your hands up and admitting it can help organisations bounce back from any potential reputational loss, helping to ensure that you can help build back trust quickly. At a time when levels of trust in companies and leaders is low, it is crucial that transparency and honesty are high on the agenda in addressing a crisis.

People need to see authentic leadership. Corporate platitudes that imply there has been little thought in the message that is being conveyed will be lost on the people who the message is intended for.

Make it a lesson learned

There is simply no point in working through a bad situation if there is no lesson learned at the end of it. Reflecting on how a crisis became a crisis, by understanding when the problem tipped into the realms of disaster, can help prevent history from repeating itself.

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