If this extraordinary year has taught us anything it is never to confuse the improbable with the impossible. Plaudits went to the All-England Club for its decision to insure Wimbledon against a global pandemic, resulting in an expected £174m payout, but few businesses were similarly prepared for a once-in-a-century event.
One of the other important lessons has been that reputation is everything. As always, there have been winners and losers. Losers included Sports Direct, who insisted that all staff continued working during the first lockdown and tried to claim that that trainers were ‘essential’ items; Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, who furloughed non-playing staff whilst announcing a £3m bonus to chairman Daniel Levy; and Britannia Hotels, which sacked its staff and gave them 24 hours to leave their accommodation – before implausibly blaming an administrative error.
Yet too many businesses relegate reputational risk to the bottom of their in-tray; it does not appear to keep them awake at night. As a former journalist, who spent 25 years on national newspapers, that has always surprised me. I witnessed too many implosions, from Fred Goodwin to Philip Green, to underestimate the importance of having an effective communications strategy in place when crisis comes calling.
But trying to handle a reputational crisis on the fly when it is already unfolding in the media and gathering pace on social media is extremely challenging. In today’s fast-moving, always-on 24-hour news environment, spontaneity is rarely rewarded.
That is why, when advising clients, we focus as much on risk mitigation as on responding to a crisis. Preparation is key: putting the right structures and processes in place. The key elements are:
• A crisis manual that sets out the risks to a business, with a clear process in place for assessing the level of risk; sharing and communicating information to staff and stakeholders; and responding to media attention
• Crisis training for the senior leadership team to prepare for a reputational crisis and to handle media interest
• Media training to learn how to communicate key messages succinctly and effectively without being derailed by difficult questions or falling into common traps
• Social media monitoring and real-time measurement of brand sentiment by tracking conversations across all platforms
But the coronavirus pandemic has also reinforced another important truth. Good communication begins inside a business, not outside it. In an era when anyone can be a publisher, anything that is communicated internally could quickly be communicated externally. No business can afford to share information with staff or stakeholders that it would not be comfortable seeing in the public domain.
And, in a time of uncertainty, when difficult decisions are sometimes made with little forewarning – decisions which might have been unthinkable months, or even weeks, before – internal communication has never been more important. Whether it is a CEO addressing a Town Hall event, or sending an All Staff email, the same thought and preparation needs to be given to it as it would be for a high-profile media interview.
The coronavirus pandemic will, we hope, soon be vanquished by the development of a vaccine, but the growing scrutiny on businesses – the way they conduct themselves and the expectation that they will behave responsibly – which has been exacerbated by the crisis, is here to stay. And any business that ignores the risk to their reputation by not having an effective crisis mitigation strategy in place does so at its peril.