Essential Basics of Crisis Management for Business

Ship sinking

The world has become very unkind. Virtue-signalling is our new national sport and seems to be taking precedence over being fair to each other. The decade without a title, that I’ll call the tennies, I think will be remembered for the gladiatorial and vicious nature in which we all tear into each other.

I believe that most people and businesses, most of the time, try to do what’s right, but we all make mistakes (or, in hindsight, crass decisions) sometimes. In the days before the internet these mistakes, at worst, made the newspapers for a few days, now the onslaught can be unrelenting and destroy a company and its reputation (sometimes years after the mistake was made). How do you prevent this happening to your business? And if it does, how do you kill the story and the impact on your business as quickly as possible?

The most effective way to manage a crisis is to avoid it happening in the first place, but be ready to respond quickly and effectively if it does. All organisations should have carried out a reputation audit with external professionals to flush out where the risks are. Usually this audit will result in changes to external messaging to manage expectations. However, the changes required often go beyond messaging and the audit results in urgent changes to procedures to avoid a crisis and some significant changes in processes. In tech companies this can include closing down security risks that the company didn’t realise existed.

Following this audit, you should have lines to take and procedures to follow should the worst happen. It is far better to agree those lines when no-one is stressed, although they will probably need to be tailored for the event itself.

But even the most effective planning won’t stop all crisis’. What do you do then?

  1. Don’t ignore the complaint or rush to respond with a denial. Immediately issue a short and sincere apology with a holding statement until you have a chance to find out more.  This is a simple thing to do, but most fail at this first hurdle. They are so keen on explaining the behaviour that the listener is given the impression that they don’t really understand what they did wrong.


Bad lawyers will also often advise against an apology, believing it makes them liable. The fact is that without an apology things will escalate very quickly. A good lawyer will ensure that the apology doesn’t expose the company but can be delivered quickly and sincerely (do make sure they check your insurance).  e.g. “We’re so sorry to hear that our customers had a bad experience. We’re looking into the issues as a matter of urgency and will be speaking to them directly to find out more”.


  1. Keep answers short, don’t over explain. For one thing, as Shakespeare pointed out, over-elaborate explanations always make you sound guiltier (“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”) and secondly you need to avoid giving additional detail to hostile journalists who will use it to fan the flames of the crisis. We find that most of our clients find this one almost impossible to obey. It is human nature to want to give the background and context to what has happened, but this is not the time to do it. Say sorry, say you’re going to ensure it doesn’t happen again, that people will be compensated (if relevant) then shut up! Anything else you say at this time (in the eye of the storm) will make things much worse.


  1. Keep stakeholders and customers informed. We find that many organisations believe they won’t be found out, so try to bury their heads in the sand. But in these days of Google we can guarantee that they will be found out, every time. It is far better for your stakeholders to be told by you, in a carefully crafted message, than to find out through the media.


  1. Don’t exaggerate or lie in your response. In any crisis, one of the things that is damaged most is the reputation of the company. The key to successfully handling a crisis is to rebuild trust. That won’t happen if the company are found to lie – and lies are very easily found out.


  1. If it’s on social media get the “conversation” offline as quickly as possible but do acknowledge the complaint to say you’re looking into the incident. Just make sure you do.


  1. Treat the complaint as an opportunity to improve your business. Do your research and find out what has actually happened and why. Talk to the staff involved. Find out the context. How can you avoid the issue happening again? Most people won’t bother to complain; they will simply stop being a customer and tell others to avoid you, which will quickly put you out of business. This is your chance to put things right.


  1. Turn the complainer into an advocate for your business. Even if the complaint is found to be a result of their misunderstanding, thank them for helping you improve your business (and mean it as they have. You now know that you’re not managing customers’ expectations). Offer the complainer something tangible for their trouble and as a way of saying sorry.


Onyx has international experience at managing crises for some of the most challenging and sensitive sectors. We’ve worked with the public sector, public corporations and start-ups. With existing clients, our expertise avoids a crisis happening, but we are brought in, sometimes at midnight, to take control of an escalating situation, or we can simply give you advice.