On Sunday, something odd caught my eye on the television. Sky News was reporting on a massive fire of a large mill which had started on Friday, in which four people were missing. The local MP, David Rutley, was being interviewed and seemed to think that the firm’s employees were in the dark about what they needed to do on Monday. What’s more, no statement or talking head seemed to be forthcoming from the leadership of the mill.
By Monday, ITV News had reported that the families of those trapped in the remains of the plant were “very, very angry” that the firm had not been in touch. Indeed, Sky reported that “The company which owns the mill, Wood Treatment Ltd, part of the Boden Group, has not made any public comment since the explosions on Friday morning.”
So why was the company silent? Well, on Monday a police officer said that: “The company has not been in touch with the families because they have been unable to do so. They have not been reticent or unwilling to do so. They are working with us to seek to establish the cause of the explosion and the fire.”
Eventually, on Monday night, the Press Association reported that the firm had issued a statement – after damage to the reputation of the company not just from the explosion but also because it didn’t communicate well. The statement said:
“We are shocked and saddened by the incident at our mill in Bosley and our thoughts and sympathies are with everyone affected and their families. The mill has been part of the community in Bosley since 1927 and we take the safety of our employees extremely seriously.
“We are committed to establishing the cause of this incident and we will continue to co-operate fully with the emergency services and Health and Safety Executive. However, we feel it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time while investigations are ongoing.”
Silence in a full-blown crisis is never a good idea because it encourages stakeholders to think that you don’t care or that you have something to hide, even though the exact opposite may be the case. It causes anger and allows rumour and misinformation to circulate uncorrected – and in the worst cases can cause an organisation’s reputation to be mortally wounded. Yet in crisis situations, in the sheer all-encompassing horror of dealing with operational matters, time is in short supply.
Effective crisis communications doesn’t just start when the crisis hits. Organisations of all sizes need a crisis plan, with template statements, and they need to line up the required resources (e.g. have a specialist PR agency available) and the procedures to deal with the communication needs when all hell breaks loose. Organisations also need to practice scenarios so that they can pick up potential gaps or limitations in their understanding and procedures. Stakeholders expect good communications in a crisis – and will be judged on them.