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How do I future proof my business for a crisis?



Crisis comms expert Lorna O'Neill

When Thomas Cook Airlines collapsed four years ago, Starling business customer Lorna O’Neill was working as the company’s Head of Communications. It was a crisis that led to long hours, and a lot of learning. Within weeks, she had set up her company, Surge Communications

In the last four years, Lorna has worked with dozens of senior leaders and business owners, guiding them through the thorny world of ‘crisis and issue management’. This is the term for how a company prepares for – and responds to – an emergency or urgent, unforeseen challenges. Examples include extreme weather conditions damaging a supply chain, or an association with someone that could lead to reputational damage. 

Here, Lorna shares advice on how to prepare and communicate in a time of crisis.

Q: Why does crisis management matter? 

A: No business is immune to crisis, no matter how big or small, and the more you think about your vulnerabilities and prepare your team, the better you’ll fare.

If a crisis does arise, the key is in how you react and respond – something that began as an isolated issue can quickly escalate to a crisis if not managed well. An example could be a problem with a business partner or supplier: if they go bankrupt or have had very bad press, it could impact your ability to operate normally and/or negatively affect your reputation.

Issues and crises can also come from within a company, perhaps arising from the culture of an organisation and its people, or it could be something completely out of your control, like the pandemic. Whatever the situation, don’t wait for the crisis to happen. When times are good, think about what could put you in hot water and prepare for that.

Q: How can a company identify its vulnerabilities?

A: The best way to identify any gaps and vulnerabilities is to prepare, practise and test your crisis plans. Simulate scenarios that include all areas of your business – as a real crisis will reach every corner.

Don’t be afraid if things go wrong in these simulations – that’s exactly what they’re for. You can then put the resources, processes and training in place to get ready for the real thing, if it happens. Building resilience and capability in peace time is, in my view, the soundest investment you can make as a business. It will pay back in spades in the long term.

Q: What is considered good crisis communication in a cost of living crisis? 

A: It can feel tempting to talk less during troubling times, but regular and transparent communication is even more crucial when times are tough. Trust is built through transparency, so be authentic in your tone, stay true to who you are and don’t change your purpose.

Connect and engage with your employees – your greatest asset. Research shows that feelings of stress and anxiety are on the rise, and you should be mindful that many people will be looking at their employment options. Provide your team with information, resources, advice and support as best as you can. Listen to their needs and empower your managers to do the same.

Think about your channels of corporate communication and where your customers might be or how they might be feeling. For example, you may want to build out your social media strategy or use more case studies to provide reassurance when your customers are watching what they spend.

Q: You once said “Companies show who they are in a crisis.” What do you mean by that?

A: If a business lives its values day-to-day, puts its people first, listens to customers and has a strong sense of awareness of the world around them, then that will become very clear in their crisis response. 

Those who lead with empathy, honesty and with their values at the heart, can strengthen stakeholder relationships long past the life of the crisis itself. Sound crisis management can provide opportunity – even if it might not feel like it at the time.