Is your business ready for a crash landing?



Taking a strategic approach to Crisis Communications can reduce the impact to your company’s reputation and its bottom line


Clint Eastwood’s latest movie “Sully”, starring Tom Hanks, tells the story behind the US Airways Captain, Chesley Sullenberger, who in January 2009 piloted his US Airways Flight 1549 to an emergency landing on the chilly waters of the Hudson River in New York.


What ‘Sully’ did during the that fateful, 208 seconds long flight, was bring forty years of flying experience to bear, with a clarity, calmness and focus, that saved the lives of all 155 crew and passengers.


Over the past decade, the reputations of numerous national institutions, charities, political organisations and many major Irish companies, representing every sector, have crash landed in a fog of public disbelief.


For many organisations the damage to their brand and reputation has been huge and, in some cases, terminal. The negative impact felt among their key stakeholder groups has been exacerbated by the organisation’s inability to respond in a timely, credible and authentic manner.


When a crisis hits, rather than hunkering down, leaders need to be available, as well as open and transparent in their communications. Successful leaders admit mistakes quickly where possible and then explain how they are managing the consequences of the crisis both within and outside the organisation. Demonstrating empathy for affected stakeholders is essential; be they customers, employees, service users or neighbours.


If you can show and tell the story of how you are working with the relevant authorities to find collaborative solutions to the issues involved, you’ll reduce the negative sentiments towards your brand, your products or service offerings.


In times of crisis, business leaders sometimes expect communications professionals to make the bad news or stories just go away. It is rarely possible for a company or individual simply to communicate their way out of a situation that they personally or their company has behaved itself badly into.


Nevertheless – by having a Crisis Communications Strategy (CCS) in place, it is possible to avert or mitigate the damage that will be caused to your reputation by unforeseen events.


Developing a robust CCS requires pre-work and ‘peacetime’ planning. From direct experience, I know that it’s an investment well worth making when you’re serious about protecting an organisation’s reputation.


Here’s my Seven Step Crisis Readiness Checklist:


  1. SCENARIO PLANNING – What constitutes a crisis will differ from sector to sector, so ask colleagues to brainstorm credible scenarios (both operational and reputational) which could cause serious damage to life, property or challenge business continuity.
  2. NAME YOUR TEAM – Define the criteria to identify a crisis and nominate a Crisis Response Team, with separate responsibilities allocated for both operational and reputational issues. Ensure there are adequate alternate resources to cover for staff absences.
  3. NOTIFICATIONS PROCESS – Establish the notification/call-out procedures that will be used in the event of a crisis and test that they are working on a regular basis.
  4. KNOW YOUR STAKEHOLDERS – Map your key stakeholders using relevant criteria (e.g. influence/interest) and identify the appropriate relationship holder for each individual or organisation.
  5. STAFF LOOP – Don’t forget your own employees, as they have a direct stake in the outcome of the crisis. Having well-oiled internal communications channels will determine whether your staff are empowered to act as positive or negative ambassadors in times of crisis.
  6. MEDIA TRAINING – Nominate key spokespeople and ensure they are media trained specifically for crisis scenarios. Prepare holding statement templates and agree a simple sign-off processes for disseminating information externally.
  7. TEAM EXERCISES – Conduct training exercises for all crisis team members, based on the scenarios you’ve identified. A best practice is to organise real-time role play sessions, after which you review your strengths and learning gaps.


While a pre-cooked plan is unlikely to exactly match the actual issue or scenario that emerges, taking a strategic approach to crisis communications, helps leaders to manage business crises more effectively.


With advance preparation and regular practice, like Captain Sullenberger, when faced with major operational/reputational issues, you too can demonstrate calm resolve, purposefully navigate your way through the crisis and emerge with your business and reputation intact.


John Egan is a member of the Alternatives Elect Consulting Panel for Public Affairs, Stakeholder Engagement & Reputation Management.