Skills Lab (pt 1): What can the Banking Royal Commission teach us about crisis communications?

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The Banking Royal Commission has thrown the reputations of Australia’s big banks into the spotlight. With the reputations of these organisations and their high-profile executives on the line, today we’re asking: how can they use best-practice crisis communications to weather the storm? Let’s take a look at the first of four tips to deal with a widely-publicised corporate crisis: using a spokesperson effectively.

Key learning: Prepare your spokesperson for everything.

If your organisation is embroiled in a crisis that is perceived to be in the public interest, journalists will undoubtedly come knocking. They will want comment from your spokesperson, and whether that is your CEO, Head of Communications or PR representative, they must be prepared to face tough questions.

Some of a spokesperson’s preparation should focus on delivery: how to remain calm, speak clearly and interact with members of the media in an appropriate and professional manner. However, what your spokesperson says is just as important as how they say it.

The way in which you handle the crisis – whether that is apologising, justifying or something else – should be guided by your crisis communication plan. Whichever route you take, you must know the details of the crisis and key factual information.

In the context of the Banking Royal Commission, this means intimately understanding the impact any findings have had on customers; from the number of affected customers, how much customers are owed, to when they will be remunerated.

If you can’t provide this key information, you must be able to tell the media when you will be able to provide the information. In a crisis, journalists and your stakeholders want answers – not excuses. The banks whose reputations were most affected by the Royal Commission were those with spokespeople who fumbled over their answers or who could not provide the information requested.

This makes it seem as though they do not fully understand the situation – or worse, have not made the effort to fully understand it. This can lead to long-lasting reputational damage, beyond the initial impact.

An experienced PR professional will be able to anticipate the general questions that a journalist will ask. Use this knowledge to prepare and approve responses in advance of media attention to ensure your communications team is prepared for any potential outcome.

It is also important to remember what the spokesperson shouldn’t say. While it’s a reflex response to defend yourself or your organisation, this is rarely effective. Take the time to strategise in advance, agree as a team on how you will proceed, and stick to the plan. Criticising others will only turn a crisis into a blame game, unless you have unbiased, clear evidence that proves your organisation has been misrepresented.

To prepare for a crisis, consider engaging an experienced PR agency to undertake media training with your spokesperson and executives. Cole Lawson provides media training to clients that prepares executives to handle difficult and challenging questions from the media, through a series of theory-based and practical exercises that build these skills.

Feel free to get in touch with us if you’d like assistance in creating a crisis communications plan, media training or just a chat about how you can protect your organisation’s reputation. Until then, keep an eye out for the next article in our Banking Royal Commission series, where we’ll be discussing reputational risk assessments and how they can assist you with anticipating crises and issues.