Having worked in the media for 15 years – 10 as a journalist and five in Public Relations – I am still staggered at how ineffective many major companies are at dealing with crisis communications situations and defending their reputations at times of stress.

One of the main failings of companies experiencing a crisis is to take the ‘head down and batten down the hatches’ approach to communicating with their stakeholders when things go wrong. The temptation for many firms – and the bigger, listed companies are as guilty of this as any – is to say nothing and hope the situation goes away and becomes tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping.

But when share prices are plunging and stakeholders are getting nervous, saying nothing creates a vacuum of information that is often filled by other parties speculating or spreading false rumours. More often than not this makes the situation worse, adds to the pressure on the company and makes everyone’s jobs far harder than they need to be.

Ultimately, rationing information betrays an aloof approach which usually backfires and does nothing to allay concerns, especially when public safety is involved. Keeping tight-lipped and not courting the media may work in the good times but it makes a company hostage to fortune in a crisis situation.

This was certainly the case a few years ago when aerospace giant Rolls-Royce was criticised for its muted public response after one of its Trent 900 engines failed mid-flight on a fully-laden Qantas Airbus A380 superjumbo, forcing the aircraft to make an emergency landing. It’s muted response and failure to provide accurate information saw more than £1 billion wiped off the company’s value in just a few weeks.

The best response in such a situation would be to provide short, simple, regular statements updating the market and stakeholders on what is going on, the status of any investigation and let them know when to expect a further update. In Rolls’ case, that would have minimised the damage significantly, as would have using social media to disseminate information quickly and effectively, which it failed to do.

Another example of what not to do is telecoms group TalkTalk’s response to last year’s data breach. The company took almost a whole day to issue a statement on the breech, which was far too long considering the personal information of tens of thousands of customers was at stake and given the speed leaked data can be disseminated today.

TalkTalk said it was “concerned” and had contacted the relevant authorities, which made the company appear like it was not in control of the situation, while the company’s failure to advise customers on what to do regarding their information security portrayed a lack of empathy. It’s CEO Dido Harding provided a case study of what not to do in a live TV interview with Newsnight.

Whether a business is communicating directly with consumers or business clients it is crucial that they show they are on top of the situation, are investigating the root causes and are taking action. Too often companies issue a ‘holding’ statement as a tick box exercise to show that they are communicating with stakeholders.

When done properly, crisis communications can highlight that an organisation has its customers’ best interests at heart, is on top of the issue and is taking action. Saying nothing will not achieve anything, other than creating an impression of a disorganised, uncaring company that has something to hide. The way forward is to get in the front foot and tackle the crisis head on.

Read Blackstock’s top 5 tips on how to survive a media crisis:

1. BE PREPARED

Ensure you have FAQ/Q&A documents prepared for all eventualities – this will give you a head start when a crisis hits, especially when it comes to developing a small number of key messages.

Also, be sure to have an up-to-date list including the name and contact information of all the journalists you will need to engage about the matter. Work with internal communications colleagues to ensure external and internal messages are aligned and are sent to key stakeholders (inside and outside of your organisation) and staff in a timely manner.

2. FILL THE VOID

Say something. Even if this is merely providing a timeline for your next statement. Providing a ‘no comment’ is not advisable because it can look evasive and allow other parties to speculate.

Comments should, where possible, be short and to the point, factual, considered and only include appropriate, relevant information. This should be delivered to the media in the same way that you normally send out missives to the media – do not rely solely on social media or one delivery channel alone, as this will likely miss and alienate some key journalists, potentially harming the reputational repair job you are working on.

3. IT’S WHO YOU KNOW

Having established, trusted relationships with key journalists also helps greatly in a crisis. Being able to pick up the phone and call a journalist with whom you have a track record who will give you a fair hearing can make a big difference, whether this is to provide an on the record statement or a background briefing. This is the pay-off for all of the ‘relationship building’ you have done and can enable you to get your message out there to the wider world and potentially set the tone for future coverage around the issue. Having a range of independent, well regarded ambassadors who are able to provide testimonials for the organisation in a time of crisis can also be a useful way of diffusing such a situation.

4. GET THE FACTS RIGHT

Meticulously check the facts in all the stories running about your organisation’s crisis to ensure no ‘fake news’ has been disseminated about the issue at hand. Also check for quotes and commentary in the paper or online press by external parties that feature in stories because if they are not accurate you will need to respond to them. Where there are factual inaccuracies in stories, be sure to call the outlets in question immediately to demand a correction or retraction, ensuring you provide clear and simple reasons why changes need to be made.

5. BROADCAST – TAKE CONTROL

When commenting on TV or radio, communicate messages which reflect the interests and concerns of your stakeholders. Do not ever speculate, admit fault or dish out blame until you are in possession of all of the facts. Control the interview by choosing your words carefully as everything you say could be clipped and used as a soundbite over and over again. Try to avoid being interviewed alongside someone with the opposite viewpoint because you could appear defensive if you have to respond to a third party with an axe to grind. Also, consider where the interview is being held and what the imagery around you could convey about the company – do not stand in front of the scene of an accident, for example.

Key broadcast points:

  • Show and express concern
  • Show empathy for people, environment, property and finance (in that order)
  • Reassure people that action is being taken by your organisations
  • Offer context and your side of the story

Click the video below to see our Managing Director Andrew Teacher discussing British Airway’s crisis in 2017 on the BBC.

Rhys Jones is Associate Director at Blackstock and was formerly Group Head of PR at Interserve, leading on corporate and crisis communications.