Holiday Crisis Communication: How to Stay Calm and Communicate On

Written by: Jacqui Maddock

As many of us race to the finish line for 2016 and our summer holidays, few industries face the seasonal challenges thrown up by the Aussie summer as those in insurance.

Known as ‘disaster season’, the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) warns the chance of bushfires, cyclones, storms and floods will soar.

The man with the plan is Campbell Fuller, ICA’s General Manager Communications & Media Relations. This week, we’ve asked him about his approaches to ‘disaster season’.

“We set ourselves up for success well in advance of the Christmas and New Year shutdown and we anticipate what may take place.

Once you’ve anticipated what’s coming, then you go through the steps of working out the team that you’re going to need and how to activate that team, and the holding statements and messages that you’re going to need. We have dozens of holding statements ready to roll, right now”.

His advice to all companies is to workshop what a crisis might look like and a wide variety of scenarios in which a business may be vulnerable. Researching what’s happening to other businesses in your sector can also feed information to you about the kind of issues and crises that may arise.

“For example, if you run a tourism business and there’s an issue around food poisoning, that is something that you can anticipate.

“Therefore, you will have in place a holding statement that talks about how you are responding and what it means to your guests and to your staff.

“These statements cannot be about glib sympathy, they actually have to show that you have a plan and you are enacting that plan and you can demonstrate the impact it is going to have,” he says.

Get on the front-foot

In a crisis, ICA makes a decision to be proactive.

“If we’re not talking on an issue, somebody else is talking about the wrong thing, spreading misinformation and relying on the squeaky wheel to inform the debate rather than relying on the facts of the circumstance.

“If you get these wrong, you can find yourself falling behind the news cycle and playing catch-up, or worse, having your agenda hijacked by someone else,” he says.

Mr Fuller cites now Opposition leader, then Union leader, Bill Shorten, and his media performance at the Beaconsfield Mine disaster in 2006, as a text book example of how to be an effective spokesperson.

“He would update on the situation a couple of times a day, even if there was nothing new. He created the expectation that he would be the person in the know”, he says. In fact, Mr Shorten’s calm-under-pressure approach earned him spot 11 in News ’ 11 tips for handling a PR crisis .

That front-foot behavior means the news agenda is much less likely to be set by someone else. A recent example of giving up the proactive advantage is one few of us will soon forget.

In light of more recent events, Mr Fuller said “Often organisations spend too much time consulting lawyers, and we saw that at the Queensland theme park tragedy.

“By the time the decision was made to respond to the crisis, that organisation had lost any hope it ever had of controlling its own message and how that business was going to be perceived.”

While in the days following, Ardent Leisure CEO Deborah Thomas admitted the situation had not be handled well , much of the reputational damage had solidified.

So, taking a leaf from ICA’s book to help your financial services brand prepare for any potential communication crisis while most of the team is at the beach, here’s our handy checklist.

Your Christmas Crisis checklist

  • Anticipate as many crises scenarios as possible, ideally developing holding statements for each
  • Build a team that can be activated easily with clear responisbilities mapped to each potential crisis
  • Guarantee access to the experts that you need including knowing their leave plans and alternate contact details
  • Agree back-up spokespeople in different markets and if the primary contact cannot be reached
  • Engage your PR agency to provide additional support including their out-of-hours contact details and availabilities
  • Ensure each spokesperson is well rehearsed on the messaging that allows you to respond to a crisis
  • Activate a notification system which means media monitoring is in in place and you have a clear process to escalate issues to the appropriate people
  • Document the plan and ensure everyone that may be required has a copy
  • As we wish you all the best for a long, relaxing summer break, we’ll leave you with author Stephen King’s helpful words: “There's no harm in hoping for the best as long as you're prepared for the worst.”