The right game plan can make all the difference between recovery and ruin. 

With social media and a 24-hour news cycle ever-present in the modern business climate, managing public image is a leadership challenge with broader implications than ever.

One only needs to look at the recent issues which have plagued a number of prominent organisations – from Cricket Australia to Australia’s big banks to Facebook – to get a feel for the scale with which public outrage can hit when things go wrong.

These are big examples, but it’s not just big business that is open to the ire of critics in a fast-paced information landscape. Where smaller businesses or those operating away from the public eye may once have avoided the wrath of news media, even they are now susceptible to scrutiny by virtue of social media, according to Clarity Communications Managing Director Anthony Hasluck.

Clarity is a Perth-based brand communications, public relations and issues management firm with experience in advising business big and small.

“Twenty years ago, someone with a strong opinion might be sitting in their living room and voice their opinion to their family by yelling at the TV,” Mr Hasluck said. “Now they can easily go online and give their opinion, and even if they are factually incorrect in what they’re saying, it can still be picked up, shared and promoted by a lot of people.

“Peoples’ views now spread in a way that they never did before.”

Mr Hasluck said the nature of the information environment in 2019 had changed the way business leaders needed to think about issues and image management, with even very small companies needing to give thought to a course of action should they come under fire.

“Previously, very large companies with very large resources or industrial operations had crisis plans in place,” he said. “But now, even small manufacturing companies need some form of crisis plan. It may be a smaller plan but it still needs to be there.

“For example, I worked on a food product recall recently for a small food manufacturer – someone had alleged there was a problem with one of the products on social media and the information spread across the internet like wildfire. It’s not a big company, but they needed a plan in place.”

Planning makes perfect

The first step in any response is to establish whether the problem you’re responding to is an issue or a crisis, according to Mr Hasluck.

“Determining whether you’re dealing with an issue or a crisis essentially determines the scale of your response, particularly the resources you allocate,” he said.

“There are quite a lot of organisations which aren’t used to being in the public eye and therefore, when a media issue comes up, they tend to overreact and think they’re dealing with a crisis when they’re not.”

By Mr Hasluck’s definition, an issue allows time to gather information on a problem, which can then be solved in a planned and measured way via normal consultation and decision-making processes.

A crisis is a situation where the luxury of time is not afforded.

“In a crisis you should be dropping all peripheral activities, and leaders should be getting on the front foot,” Mr Hasluck said.

“They need to get all the advice and resources they need in place to handle the crisis. If you understand it’s an issue then you’ve got time to deal with it in a planned and measured way, even if it’s in the media. A crisis is something you approach with a very different mindset.”

Left unchecked or poorly managed, an issue or the build-up of multiple issues can soon become a crisis.

Reputation restoration

The breaking of a crisis is often just the beginning, with business reputation dependent on how a response is communicated to stakeholders.

Mr Hasluck said there were some key areas to consider in terms of messaging, firstly when a crisis breaks and then in leading reputational recovery – speed, clarity and authenticity of communication. “If as the result of a crisis you want to be seen in an ongoing way as open, honest and transparent about what happened and your solution, you essentially need to live that,” he said.

“You have to demonstrate your intentions through your actions – you have to communicate regularly, clearly and effectively about what you’re doing to set things right and make improvements for the future.

“You can’t say ‘we’re going to be a better organisation, we’re going to be more open and honest and transparent in the future’ and then not do that as a CEO or senior management. If you don’t live your values you’ll be open to charges of hypocrisy and your reputation will be further diminished.”

Leadership in time of crisis

• Act fast.
• Confirm you are dealing with a crisis and not an issue.
• Be proactive and get on the front foot.
• Implement crisis plans.
• Get required additional resources.

• Assume the crisis will sort itself out.
• Focus only on operational issues – communication is critical.
• Wait until after the crisis is resolved to comment.
• Forget to communicate with staff and stakeholders.

Jack McGinn is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.