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The anatomy of a good crisis communications response

Dee Smith and Associates explores what good communications after an incident looks like, looking at some real-world examples and emphasising the important of being transparent during a crisis.

A crisis can be one of the most stressful and testing events that you will likely have to face during your career. And they can make or break individuals, companies or any such group that is unfortunate enough to be dealt one.

Every organization will experience a crisis of some sort during its existence. Crisis management and how a major incident is handled is one of the most crucial processes for an enterprise. A major incident, which is one with a significant negative business consequence, needs to be handled with a well-defined process which is not currently clearly defined in existing methodologies. If you have done crisis management training, then it's likely that you are well prepared and the steps for managing a crisis are documented in your business continuity plan. If not, at least consider the most important factor in any crisis: communication.
   
One of the key factors to take into consideration during a crisis is your company's reputation. Take, for example, a downed application; this application ultimately underpins a business function which in turn affects your company's ability to service its client(s). Clients which are not getting the service they expect are likely to be upset and demand answers. How any company deals with this situation is crucial to its reputation.

In order to fully grasp this, you have to put yourself in the position of the individual or company which is not receiving the service for which they are paying.

Consider the scenario where you cannot connect to the Internet via your cellular provider. This is very frustrating and that frustration will increase as you learn that more people using the same service provider are affected as well. In today's interconnected world, it won't be long before someone takes to social media to voice their frustration. When consumers take to social media, they air their frustrations on a global platform and expect a fast, accurate and informative response.

"We are currently experiencing intermittent connection issues affecting some customers. Our engineers are working on resolving this ASAP."

The above Tweet was sent by a globally recognised mobile telecommunications provider.

Consider how frustrated you would be with your provider if you were to receive a response such as this. This is an empty statement: it does not inform the recipient/s of anything and is merely given because a response is expected. People hate being lied to, treated like idiots or kept in the dark. It leaves room for speculation as to the real issue and results in clients losing faith in their service provider. This is the quickest path to brand damage.

Transparent communication

The problem with being transparent during a crisis is that often we don't know the root cause of the issue, which means we can't answer the question on everyone's lips: "When are you going to fix it?"

Crises tend to expose flaws in our processes and systems. Exposing failures and weaknesses to our clients can leave us being perceived in a vulnerable light. So, how do we communicate transparently while saving face with our clients? A good communication strategy should always be able to answer this simple three-part question: "Who do we tell what and by when?"

Let's start by looking at the ‘who’.

Who we should typically communicate to depends on what role we play within the organization. If we're part of the technical team, we should be communicating all findings into the crisis management team, who in turn should communicate to the business, i.e., the executive suite as well as the public relations department. Either of these groups will then handle communication with the public.

It is important to note that, at each of the communication stages mentioned above, the message needs to be fit for purpose, i.e., what may be good technical communication will not serve as a good public communication. So, at each of these stages, the individuals responsible for communication need to ensure the message meets the requirements of its intended recipients. However, in doing so, they also need to ensure that when making the message ‘fit for purpose', it is not diluted in such a way that the facts are lost.

‘What’ do we communicate to these people?

Let's refer to the generic statement made earlier: "We are currently experiencing intermittent connection issues affecting some customers. Our engineers are working on resolving this ASAP."

What would you say is wrong with this statement?

Effective and transparent communication needs to address specific issues: What is wrong – what service is affected? Who is affected? Can we isolate these people geographically or is it everyone who uses the affected service? What are we doing about it? What steps are we taking to resolve this issue? When do we expect to resolve this issue? Or if we don't know when exactly – when will you get the next update?

Note that these are the basic issues that every incident/crisis manager must have the answers to at any given point during a crisis if he/she hopes to manage it successfully.

Look at the statement again:

"We are currently experiencing (1) intermittent connection issues affecting (2) some customers. Our engineers are (3) working on resolving this (4) ASAP."

While this statement does essentially answer all four questions, there is absolutely nothing precise about it. Vague terms such as ‘some customers' and ‘ASAP' actually translate as ‘we don't really know which customers' and ‘we don't know when it's going to be fixed'.

Good communication from the technical teams usually means granular detail about root cause, the steps that are being taken to resolve the issue, as well as timing around each of the steps. This, however, is not the case when communicating to the business or the public, as they do not necessarily care that a failed blade module on one of your core routers is the cause of the problem, or that you have issued spares which will take an hour to fetch and then install. Also, publicly sharing low level details of the cause of an incident may expose the company to exploitation viz by hackers.

‘When’ do we communicate?

What everyone cares about, whether the issue has been isolated or not, is that steps are being taken to address or alleviate the problem, and the anticipated duration for which the service will be impacted. Consider the statement released by Seacom during an undersea cable break in 2013:

"Multiple subsea cable cuts have been confirmed off the northern coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea, which are impacting a number of cable systems in Africa, Middle East and Asia connecting to Europe. Seacom is currently working to establish restoration options on alternative capacity across the Mediterranean Sea and also by adding further IP capacity in Asia. It is expected that it will take some hours to confirm options and arrange network re-routing. Seacom will contact customers directly to discuss restoration options."

Despite the fact that the cause was external and it did not know exactly how long it would take to fix, Seacom was able to communicate that it had a grasp of the problem, understood the cause and was clearly taking ownership of the issue. A great start.

We communicate as soon as we understand there is a problem, which has an impact that results in service deterioration or a service outage. We then communicate continuously as and when we have updates that are relevant to resolving the problem, and also set expectations for further communication. And then stick to it. Even if you don't have any progress, that in itself is worth communicating. It shows respect for your clients and their time.

‘How’ we communicate is as important as the who we tell what to. The most appropriate medium for updates and feedback depends on the problem, the extent of the impact and the most effective way of getting the message out to the target audience.

After the incident

Once the incident or outage is resolved, the hardest part still remains. This is where many organizations fail. Your organization may have gone through a multi-hour or even a multi-day crisis, but the fact is that it was a crisis, and crises tend to be bad for consumer confidence.

So, what can be done to restore your clients' confidence in the services received from your company?

Herein lies the crux of the matter, the truth about transparency.

Transparency is really about accountability, and accountability means that, no matter what the cause of the issue – be it people, process or systems – the company is accountable. You may not actually be able to share the finer details of an incident, as this might expose your company to added risk. But you can provide a general indication of the issue encountered or the impact thereof.

People appreciate when others take accountability, but it's not enough just to say: ‘We're sorry’. Accountability is about taking action to ensure the problem does not happen again. So be specific, set the expectation and the timeline for feedback on the actions, and stick to it.

If you want to be taken seriously, you need to ensure you take your clients seriously, and that means taking accountability for communicating effectively, transparently and honestly. This is how respect is earned and trust is restored.

www.deesmith.co.za



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