Person asking question during media conference

Communicating through a crisis

Public speaking during tough times

4 minute read
Person asking question during media conference

Once a crisis hits, it’s not going away and you cannot kill it, then a leader’s focus needs to be on moving it forward and being recognised as part of the solution, rather than the problem.

That was the theme of an AIM WA sundowner event with ThinkBox Media Directors Melissa Bowen and Sandra Di Girolamo.

Ms Di Girolamo said a crisis could come in all shapes and sizes and could happen to people or a business through little fault of their own.

“An accident at the workplace, or a co-worker or student accusing them of something they didn’t do – that’s a crisis,” she said.

“If you are a leader, it is your problem to address – even if the crisis is not your fault or you think it is not your fault.”

What not to do

Ms Bowen said there was a very big difference in outcomes for leaders based on how they chose to publicly communicate through a crisis.

“Too often, we will see people just want to bunker down and close ranks."

“Or they are really happy to take what I consider the worst advice and don’t say anything,” she said.

“You need to be asking the lawyers and anyone else who might have very valid concerns what you can say.

“You can always say something.”

What to do

Ms Bowen said a good example of flawless crisis communication was the former BHP Chief Executive Officer Andrew Mackenzie during the Samarco Dam project in Brazil.

“He was steadfast on two things,” she said. “He went to Brazil as fast as modern aircraft would take him and he spoke to the media.

“Before he went to Brazil, he gave a press conference to the media. The media didn’t know what they were turning up for.

“It is a lot easier than talking to the press, who have had time to gather facts, talk to the people who have been affected and get the right questions.”

Ms Di Girolamo agreed, saying the earlier you speak the less you have to say.

“On day one, you can say we don’t know what’s happened, we’re looking into it, we’re investigating and we’re cooperating,” she said.

“You can’t say that by day five because, by day five, you need to know what happened.

“If you don’t speak early, what you do is you find yourself defending, rather than helping tell that story.”

Remorse and respect

There are two things people want to hear from a leader during a crisis, and you can choose to show remorse or respect.

“If you’re sorry, can’t you just say you’re sorry?,” Ms Di Girolamo said.

“There are a few examples of some ways people have apologised in media interviews.

“These are: ‘we want to say to those people, we are truly sorry’, or ‘this never should have happened’.

“You can’t always say sorry but you can demonstrate empathy without admitting fault by showing respect.

“Respect for the process, respect for your clients, respect for the problem that has been caused.”

Ms Di Girolamo said leaders must pick either remorse or respect and must come up with a remedy to the crisis.

“It is moving the conversation forward – you are talking about what you are doing next and that is what people want to hear,” she said.

Ms Bowen said while it’s human nature to be defensive, it is a trap that good leaders fall into and fall into it early.

“The problem with that is the tone goes out the window,” she said.

“By tone, I don’t just mean the way they say things, I mean what they choose to say at that point.

“Because what you choose to say at the beginning might be different to what’s relevant along the way, and you get a turn to say something a bit different.

“You’ve got to think about who you are trying to build trust with because your first impression is to build trust with people and, if you’re defensive, you are pushing away the people that you need to build trust with.”

Do it right

Ms Bowen said there were a few things to remember when handling a crisis, including going straight to the top of the company.

“We want to hear from the Chief Executive Officer – if there is a crisis it’s going straight to the top,” she said.

“Don’t lie, it can get you into a lot of trouble, but also don’t guess. You have a crisis that is unfolding, even the best leaders might not know everything.

“Order your communications, the hardest conversations are usually the ones that have to happen first.”