Three crisis communication insights from NatWest outage

June 12, 2012 by Jonathan Hemus

NatWest currently finds itself engaged in a battle to protect its reputation as its crisis management planning and training is put to the ultimate test.  It’s too early to draw firm conclusions on the long term impact, but here are my initial observations:

1) NatWest was slow off the mark as the crisis escalated online

Sat in a queue at the Ghanian High Commission (that’s another story) I had plenty of time to observe the crisis rapidly escalating on Twitter.  Frustrated customers expressed their anger to anyone who would listen (and posted comments to NatWest’s website), reporters asked colleagues for commentators or contacts at NatWest, and “experts” like me expressed their views about how the bank was handling the situation.  NatWest was not well represented in these discussions.  Their tweets were sporadic (around one an hour) and corporate in their language.  Contrast this with HSBC’s crisis communication when they faced a similar issue a few months back: they tweeted relentlessly and with a very human tone  of voice.

These days, businesses must be prepared to engage (I repeat “engage”, not broadcast) in online discussions quickly and expansively.  That means identifying resource beforehand and running social media simulations so that team members are confident to communicate via social media when the heat is on.

2) The media feeds off Twitter in a breaking crisis

Anyone who now claims that Twitter is irrelevant to their business is  simply wrong.  Even corporates and business to business brands will experience the incredible influence of social media in a crisis.  If nothing else, reporters will use it to source quotes and take the temperature of a situation.  More than that, many of the tweeters that I observed during the afternoon turned up on TV and radio news broadcasts that evening.  Others were quoted in the next day’s papers.  I wonder how those news channels identified them….

3) Successful crisis management is about solving the problem AND great communication

Despite my observations above, NatWest has said many of the right things in its crisis commmunication.  It was quick to issue an apology (without any weasel words inspired by twitchy lawyers) and to promise compensation.  It has taken and communicated steps which go beyond what would normally be expected (for example extending opening hours).  And I have been hugely impressed by the performances of NatWest’s Susan Allan who has communicated all of the right messages in the right tone of voice across countless media interviews (it shows the value of crisis media training!).  But despite these efforts, it’s not enough to placate customers.  Why not?  Because the problem is still not resolved.Successful crisis management requires the perfect marriage of problem resolution andeffective crisis communication.  They are equally important and one without the other is rarely enough.

As I write this blog, NatWest continues to grapple with its biggest ever crisis as it seeks to retain customer loyalty and its reputation.  I sincerely hope that other businesses are observing its perils and engaging in the kind of crisis management training and planningthat would enable them to protect their reputations should a similar incident occur.

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