When Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, carrying 239 passengers and crew, went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March last year, the tragedy was compounded by the official response. As the world tuned in to reports of the search for the missing plane, they were also witness to a case of how not to manage a crisis.
If a company is judged more on how it handles the bad times than the good, a clear strategy for effective media engagement is essential. In the case of Malaysian Airlines, the strategy appeared uncertain. “They broke nearly every rule,” says Anthony McClelland of public relations consultancy AMC Media. “They lost credibility within 48 hours of the plane going missing. They had multiple spokespeople often saying contradictory things. They handled the key stakeholders – the relatives of the missing – atrociously. It seemed like they had no [crisis] plan at all.”
Disaster is always a hot media topic. And when a crisis hits the workplace, it can make front-page news. It could be the result of a financial crash, computer security breach, poorly managed redundancy or workplace fatality. While HR professionals may not be the conduit for media engagement during a disaster, there is great value in understanding effective media strategies.
A proactive response is one of the first rules of crisis communication. “You need to engage with the media,” says Graeme Newton, crisis management leader with Deloitte. “A vacuum will be filled and it’s important that someone else doesn’t fill it. You need to make a statement, even if it’s a holding statement that says you’re gathering more information.”
Newton adds that social media can be a valuable part of proactive communication. “You can use social media to spread the word but also as a feedback loop to influence the response. It can be a source to pick up sentiment, which can be used to issue statements to try to put things at ease,” he says.
The first 48 hours of a crisis are critical for an organisation to communicate a response to stakeholders. “There needs to be a process in place where quick decisions can be made,” says McClellan. “A crisis is not a time to have lots of committee meetings to try to seek a consensus – you need a leader who is empowered to make decisions and take control.”
McClellan adds that the leader will generally become the spokesperson for media engagement. “They need to be articulate, honest, credible and media trained. There’s a need to speak in simple and digestible language. One of the problems I run into is trying to ‘de-jargon’ people in a business. If I hear the expression ‘going forward’ one more time I’m going to scream.”
In times of drama, honest communication is both a moral obligation and a business imperative. “I deal with the media in the same way that I’d want to deal with internal communications, and the fundamental things are to be transparent and open,” says Paul Begley, AHRI’s national manager of government and media relations. “It’s not a court of law, but concealing material facts would be a very negative thing to do.”
“People in my job who try to cover up are doing the opposite of what they should do because it will be counter productive, almost certainly,” adds Begley. “If the media can find an angle on the cover-up, then the cover-up becomes the story.”
The same level of transparency should be applied to internal communications. So how can HR ensure employees are kept informed when a crisis hits?
“Staff, in a general sense, are the first stakeholder group that needs to be told what’s going on,” says Simon Mossman, director of communications and media training firm Mossman Media.
“Even though you might not know what a crisis or issue looks like or when it may strike, there’s huge value in planning for the worst and how it will be communicated,” says Mossman.
One way to do that is to be an active consumer of news. “Even if an HR person doesn’t think there’s something in the media for them to worry about, it still pays for them to be across it.”
Effective internal communication when a business crisis is making headlines can help sustain loyalty, productivity and even retention, says Christine Parker, Westpac group executive, HR and corporate affairs.
“It’s important that you have aligned and engaged employees who are advocates for you. You can’t just do [the internal communication] as a one-off.
“I don’t see HR in isolation from how you run your broader communications, external and internal.”
Parker says business challenges must be communicated to employees and followed up with specific tools. These might include question-and-answer documents, customer information for distribution, leadership sessions to help people communicate the crisis to their teams and workshops.
“You need to make sure they have the skills and information required to respond, whether that’s to customers or at a barbecue,” says Parker. This means giving employees the information they need to confidently articulate the facts and the company’s position on the matter. “It’s part of the overall integrated strategy around customer care, multibranding and sustainability.”
McClellan says companies have a responsibility to communicate externally and internally during a crisis. “If a media release is being sent out, send it to staff so they know what you’re saying. The advantage is having a constant message. You need to tell everyone the same thing otherwise you create confusion.”