Crisis management: The art of listening

January 21, 2014 by Alex Johnson

Effective communication in a crisis isn’t about what you say – it’s also about how you listen.

Gut instinct may be to hunker down in the ‘war room’ and get on with managing the incident but shutting yourself off from the outside world can result in strategies that fail to take account of public opinion and how the story develops.

What make a good crisis ‘listener’? Here are a few things to consider:

Are you liked? How is your industry viewed by stakeholders? If it doesn’t have a positive image even when times are good (banks anyone?), the chances are your crisis communication response will be judged harshly. Your only option is to work as hard as you can to have a solid reputation when things are going well (Nigella being a case in point) and be pitch perfect during difficult times.

Foes can be friends. Listen to your detractors. How are they responding to your communication efforts? They will be ready to critique anything that sounds disingenuous, unclear or weak. Use their comments and questions to strengthen your responses.

Know your place. Are you the latest in a long line of companies to suffer a similar fate or the first? If, as in the horsemeat scandal, you are one of many, learn from mistakes others have made and don’t repeat them. It’s important to stay true to your brand and values but foolish to anger a hostile audience by failing to take heed of messaging which has been poorly received already. Even if your crisis is unique for your industry, look at other sectors to see how they’ve handled similar situations.

Don’t just listen to those that shout loudest. It’s easy to focus on the most demanding journalists and customers but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Take on board and respond to a cross section of views and questions from a wide variety of stakeholders.

Stay aware. Moods and opinions change. When the heat of the crisis has passed – keep listening. You never know when the story may become news again and you need to be confident that your messaging takes account of the latest situation.

So, I will leave the last words to Ernest Hemingway who has the right approach to keeping an ear out when managing a crisis: ‘When people talk, listen completely’.

Related content


Insignia Award Icon

Winner of Consultancy of the Year at CIR Business Continuity Awards 2023

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists for Specialist Consultancy of the Year at CIR Business Continuity Awards 2020 & 2023

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists in 2023 Great British Entrepreneur Awards: Service Industries category

Insignia Award Icon

Winner Specialist Business Book of the Year 2021 at The Business Book Awards (Crisis Proof)

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists in the Lloyds Bank British Business Excellence Awards 2021: Purpose Before Profit category

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists in the Business Champion Awards 2021: Champions in a Crisis category

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists for Business Advisor of the Year at the 2021 Growing Business Awards

Insignia Award Icon

Shortlisted for BCI Europe Awards 2023: Continuity and Resilience Consultant category