The three crisis communication principles business leaders should adhere to

February 6, 2019 by Joe Hawke

reputation management

When a crisis strikes, the reputation of your organisation hinges on how successfully you communicate. As a leader, it is critical that you determine how you want your organisation to be perceived after the dust settles.

Business leaders have risen and fallen based on how effectively they’ve communicated under pressure. It’s not only the reputation of your organisation on the line, it’s your personal reputation as well.

In an age where social media accelerates each incident, crises can quickly spiral out of control if you choose to say nothing, so ensure you adhere to the following three principles of successful crisis communication.

1.      Communicate quickly during a crisis

It’s important to communicate quickly during a crisis, not only with external stakeholders but also your own staff.

Asserting control at the start of a crisis and setting the narrative will give you the best chance of emerging with your organisation’s reputation intact, as well as your own. If you wait until you have all the facts at your disposal, which could take days or even weeks, you will lose control of the narrative to commentators who may not have your best interests at heart.

Kwikfit, the car service specialist, found this out to its detriment at the end of last month. It took the organisation days to communicate that its computer system had been infected with malware and when it eventually did, the response was lacking in any clarity or obvious steps to resolve the problem. A barrage of social media comments from frustrated customers soon followed.

2.      Relay the right messages in the right way

Words matter during a crisis, but of equal importance is how you communicate them. If you are in front of a camera, your tone of voice, body language and even what you are wearing will all communicate certain messages to your audience.

Rick Smith, the CEO and Chairman of Equifax, who suffered a huge customer data breach in 2017, went on camera after the event to explain the incident and offer his apology to affected customers. He may have said the right things in front of camera, but it was clear the piece had been scripted and he appeared to be reading from an autocue. For a message that was meant to be heartfelt and compassionate, his performance lacked sincerity.

3.      Be transparent in your communication

Assume that everything is discoverable. The various ways information can be found and the pace at which news breaks, will all work against you if you decide to conceal crucial facts about the crisis from stakeholders. A crisis invites further scrutiny and once you’re in the thick of it, the outside world will start looking for skeletons.

This was especially true of VW’s ex-CEO, Martin Winterkorn, who was charged last year with conspiracy and fraud relating to the diesel emissions scandal. Winterkorn said that he was unaware of what VW engineers were doing to cheat US diesel emissions tests, although it later emerged that he was not only aware but had also authorised the cover-up.


As many business leaders have found out to their cost, successful reputation protection requires you to communicate quickly, deliver the right message in the right way and be transparent. Failure to observe these three key principles will jeopardise your organisation’s reputation as well as your own.






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