Crisis Management: Forget Notifying Stakeholders At Your peril: Crisis Communications
Two people kidnapped and robbed a student after a high school basketball game. The teenager escaped unharmed and police later tracked down two suspects. Unfortunately, the school principal did not learn about the crime from police. A student told him. The chief apologized for the miscommunication. This was a teachable moment.
Whenever something significant happens within your business or organization, keep all stakeholders in the loop, especially if it’s public. It is astonishing how much trouble stakeholder communication can prevent and scary how much chaos can occur if it isn’t done.
Example: A shooting on private property several years ago killed several people including a child. While authorities temporarily withheld the victims’ names in this domestic disaster, news media nevertheless reported the crime including the involvement of a school-aged girl. Expecting reporters to call the deceased child’s school, the system PR person and I drafted statements for the principal and for the school system itself. We then asked ourselves, “Who else should we tell?” We decided we should notify the principals of all the schools. After all, every school could be called by a panicked parent trying to learn the identity of the unknown little girl or whether she was a classmate of the caller’s child. So, the administration began informing all the schools. That prepared each principal to calm alarmed callers and keep public emotions in check.
In a corporate situation, taking care of stakeholders avoided widespread and undeserved bad publicity. A global company bought a smaller company and inherited a groundwater contamination problem. Tests showed that some residential wells were potentially affected and should be closed. Company representatives personally contacted those living in the area, personally delivered drinking water, paid for permanent connection to nearby city waterlines, and stayed in touch with all involved throughout the years-long process. Even when local media reported the situation there was no outcry and it was evident the company was trying to do the right thing. Much was done correctly but I think the most important was the personal “hand-holding” of all the residents, the stakeholders. This constant communication was a class act and a testimonial to keeping all stakeholders in the loop.
Let’s return to the schools for another example. As you know, cases involving sexual misconduct between coaches/teachers and students have become all too common and I have been involved in a few. In all those situations school leaders moved fast to notify staff and parents of the incidents and of how they were protecting their children. Any parent complaints were reasonable. News coverage was fair and reassuring.
Importantly, stakeholder notification can be premature when a crisis may be non-existent and details incomplete. You don’t want to announce an incident that didn’t occur, yet you do want to be responsive. So, if immediate disclosure of a situation is not compelled by safety, legal, policy, or ethical reasons, then draft a standby stakeholder statement and sit on it until you’ve got your facts straight or a premature leak compels release. You’ll be ready to inform stakeholders however the case unfolds.