One of our most popular posts was one I wrote about 7 Steps to Separate you from the Good-Gone-Bad and the Just Downright Ugly. In the news then was Volkswagen, which admitted that 11 million of its cars failed to meet certain emissions standards but passed testing due to specially programmed “defeat devices”. The Prostate Cancer Institute was grappling with the news that Professor John Kearsley recent pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting a female colleague after he spiked her drink with bennies.
Also, Yooralla a service for people with disabilities was facing the fallout from a former casual carer was jailed for 18 years for raping people with disability in his care who were Yooralla clients. The CEO of Yooralla resigned, the board lost its chair, and there were calls for a national inquiry into the disability sector.
Queue the Royal Commission Into Violence, Abuse, Neglect And Exploitation Of People With Disability. Media reports from the Royal Commission in December 2019, still has Yooralla on the back foot because they:
- Failed to move a woman who was repeatedly raped from that room for 8 years
- Failed to even apologise to some of the other victims of rape
- Only compensated those victims who took legal action
- Treated one victim as a survivor and she got $250,000 compensation. They treated another as an employee and her rape was considered a “workplace incident”. She got little compensation
- Did not give other victims any advice or support on seeking independent advice
Why am I dredging up these events from 2015? Because we are in the midst of one of the greatest mobilisations of volunteer effort in Australia’s history outside of a war. For months now, volunteers have been dealing with the bushfire crisis whether as firefighters, SES, crisis logistics, wildlife carers, and hundreds of thousands of crafters from around the world have been making joey pouches.
And some very venerable organisations have again been shooting themselves in the foot over issues of trust. The Australian Red Cross, the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul have been accused of dragging their feet on handing out donations they received for bushfire victims.
Journalist Rick Morton is doing an investigative piece on the Red Cross and one tweet was retweeted 325 times, with 755 likes. The Red Cross was trending in Australia with more than 13,000 tweets on just one day – very few of them complimentary.
A breach of trust
These scandals erupt, and in the days of social media, events trending in a heartbeat, and you need to get on the front foot to deal with them.
Clearly, the people of Yooralla have learned nothing from their baptism by fire in 2015. Five years later, they are still on the back foot, still haven’t dealt with the basic breaches of trust caused by one person – and their failure of management and good governance.
You will never see it coming
You won’t see the crisis coming but have a plan to deal with it when it does. Here are my 7 Steps to at least give you a start on managing your crisis communications.
1. Have a plan
It’s too late when a person has been charged or the tests have been checked and found defective to develop a crisis management plan. That is something you have to do when the sky is blue; the birds are singing, and the donors and car buyers are parting with their hard-earned money.
2. Appoint one person to talk about the issue
- Make it someone’s job to speak to everyone concerned. In your p
lan, make sure everyone knows what they need to know. These may be staff, the board, volunteers, regulators, clients and the generalpublic (via the media).
- Don’t be stingy about information because the crisis involves fraud, rape, assault or any other nasty event.
- Treat every person who has questions with respect
- Treat every question (even after you’ve heard it 43 times) as important
- Answer all the questions.
- If you can’t answer the questions, say that you can’t and that you will come back to the questioner.
- Here’s a big tip, get back to the questioner with the answer as soon as you have it
- And make it quick.
- Make it someone’s job to speak to everyone concerned. In your p
3. Say you are sorry (if it’s your organisation)
If it is your organisation at the root of the problem say
- You are sorry that you haven’t met the standards required
- You are cooperating with authorities,
- And what you are doing to prevent it happening again.
- Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat until you start to see some sunshine.
This could take a while; years depending on how bad it was in the first place (Yooralla isn’t there yet).
If it’s not your organisation that is the cause of the problem
- Talk about the safeguards and measures that are in place to prevent such a thing happening
- Agree to scrutiny anyway
- Post your policies regarding the issue on your website
- Offer a helpline for clients or customers
4. Swallow the frog
Mark Twain used to say that if you have to swallow a frog, do it in the morning.
Get the nasty stuff out the way as soon as possible. Address the issue and get on with the rest of your day/plan/life.
- If you have to say one of your trusted founders has admitted to a criminal charge, say it. Say you’re sorry. Say what you are doing about it.
- If you’ve been found out in widespread corporate fraud, put your hand up, admit what’s gone on, say what you are doing about it.
- This is not the time to listen to your lawyers who want you to admit nothing because you could cop it. You are going to cop it – so do it bravely, early and comprehensively.
5. Continue to communicate until the crisis is passed
There is a great scene in The West Wing where presidential-hopeful Arnie Vinick, played by Alan Alda, who has been championing nuclear power as a clean, safe fuel stands in front of a nuclear power plant where there’s been a nasty nuclear accident. He answers journalists’ questions on his stance until they run out of questions. Be that person. Be Alan Alda, be Arnie Vinick.
6. Start getting back on message
Keep talking about your cause, your foundation, the great service you provide and the outstanding cars you build (notwithstanding the nasty hiccough).
But this step needs to be treated with caution. If you talk too soon about your good stuff, people won’t believe you because of the bad stuff. If you don’t talk about your good stuff, people will only talk about your bad stuff.
See if you can get others talking about your good stuff – not to refute the bad stuff, but to balance it.
7. Remember Vivien Leigh’s advice
In the closing scene of Gone with the Wind, where Vivien Leigh as Scarlett has just had a big bust up with Rhett Butler played by Clark Gable, Leigh says: “After all, tomorrow is another day”.
It doesn’t sound like great advice but it’s very practical.
You may have survived the PR-equivalent of the American Civil War on the losing side; your beloved child (project defunded or funded in a sports rort?) may have died; your husband may have just walked out on you (key supporters abandoned you??) but you still have the cause you believe in.
If you believe in it, get out and defend it. Start thinking about what’s next, don’t move on from the Day 1 story (immediate crisis) too quickly but be planning for the Day 2 story(laying blame), and the Day 3 story (analysis) and the story in a month from now (the search for systemic solutions). Get ready with your long-term strategy.
If you don’t have the skills to develop a crisis management plan, then pray that you have a board that is steeped in good governance and isn’t like, say, any in the banking and finance industry. Your second prayer will be that your CEOhas the chops of NSW Rural Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons. You will be on your knees for a while because next you need to pray that none of the people associated with your organisation (or any that are like it or even in the same industry) ever does anything wrong.