The tragic case of five-year-old Ashya King, whose parents removed him without consent from Southampton General Hospital to seek alternative treatment for his brain tumour abroad, has gripped the nation. It has also raised many questions about the way this case was handled by University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, which is now conducting an internal enquiry.
In cases such as this one, having a crisis management plan in place is key to ensuring that the situation is managed properly. This applies to any type of organisation, whether in the public or private sector.
Organisations should be updating their crisis plans constantly and rehearsing their processes regularly because when a crisis hits, the response needs to be instinctive and swift.
So what are the key elements to consider when putting in place your crisis management plans? Here are some guidelines to point you in the right direction:
- Anticipate potential crises: it is important to identify a broad range of potential crises that could occur at your organisation so that you can prepare for them.
- Identify your crisis communications team: ideally this should be senior executives supported by the PR team, in certain cases the legal team and those with special knowledge related to the current crisis. Ensure that they all have received the adequate training if they are also going to act as your spokespeople and do not leave this until the crisis hits.
- Identify key decision makers: ensure the decision making process is clear and that everyone is aware who has the authority to make decisions, including the final say. In some organisations it may be the chief executive, in others it could be the head of communications.
- Put in place monitoring systems: knowing what is being said about your organisation on social and traditional media by your employees, customers and other stakeholders is an essential part of both crisis prevention and crisis response.
- Assess the crisis situation: you should not react to a PR crisis if you don’t know exactly what happened and why it happened. It is important to understand the entire story from an internal perspective but also understand how your external stakeholders will perceive the incident.
- Monitor the reaction to the crisis: use your PR and social media monitoring tools to identify what the reactions of your stakeholders and the media may be. One of the biggest challenges for crisis management is the revolution of social media, as it makes crises spread faster and allows the public to voice their opinions or propagate rumours in a highly visible manner.
- Develop a response to the crisis: keep it simple. Have no more than three main messages that go to all stakeholders and, as necessary, some audience-specific messages for individual groups of stakeholders. It is also extremely important to be swift; you should aim to respond to a crisis within hours, not days.
- Identify the channels to communicate your messages: whether you will be using your website, social media, a press release or press conference to communicate your response to the crisis, make sure that you choose the channels that will best deliver to your stakeholders.
- Monitor the reactions to your response: the crisis might not be over yet and you need to keep monitoring the reactions in the marketplace and react accordingly.
- Learn from the experience: a formal analysis of what was done well, what was done incorrectly, and how to improve various elements of your crisis management plan is key to ensure you’re well prepared should you have to deal with another crisis.
The way organisations handle crises can make or break their reputation, and as we all know it takes a long time to rebuild it and regain trust. By preparing yourself for all eventualities, you stand a good chance of coming out of a crisis with your reputation intact.