The key role of External Relations in managing crises
Managing a crisis involves getting ready for, dealing with, and getting back on track after an unexpected situation that could damage a company’s reputation, work, or people’s interests. It includes different people from inside and outside the company, like staff, consumers, suppliers, press, officials, and the general public.
One of the key aspects of crisis management is external relations. It refers to clear and concise communication with stakeholders outside of the organization. Having strong external relations can significantly benefit an organization, as it enables them to:
- Inform and reassure external stakeholders about the situation and the actions taken by the organization
- Maintain or restore trust and confidence in the organization and its leadership
- Protect or enhance the organization’s reputation and brand image
- Prevent or mitigate negative publicity and rumours
- Solicit feedback and support from external stakeholders
- Coordinate with other organizations or agencies involved in the crisis response
External relations can take various forms, such as press releases, social media posts, interviews, webinars, newsletters, podcasts, or events. The choice of external relations strategies and channels depends on the type, severity, and stage of the crisis, as well as the characteristics and preferences of the target audiences.
Here are three examples of crisis management in which external relations played a decisive role:
- The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic caused a global health crisis that affected millions of people and disrupted multiple sectors of society and the economy. The pandemic presented unique challenges to organisations of all sizes and types. Organisations’ strategy for external relations included informing and protecting employees and customers, adapting operations and services to comply with health guidelines, offering support or assistance to affected communities or groups, donating or producing medical supplies or equipment, collaborating with other organisations or institutions to find solutions or innovations, and communicating their values and vision for the future.
- The Volkswagen emissions scandal of early 2015 revealed that the company had installed software in millions of diesel vehicles to cheat on emissions tests. The scandal negatively affected Volkswagen’s image, sales, earnings, and market capitalisation. Volkswagen’s external relations strategy included admitting wrongdoing, apologising to customers and regulators, recalling and repairing affected vehicles, paying fines and settlements, replacing top executives, and implementing reforms to prevent future misconduct.
- The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, resulted from an explosion and fire on an offshore drilling rig. The spill caused environmental damage, economic losses, and health risks for millions of people and wildlife. BP faced intense scrutiny and criticism from the media, the public, the government, and other stakeholders. BP’s external relations strategy included issuing apologies, accepting responsibility, providing compensation, launching a website and a hotline for information and claims, cooperating with the authorities, and investing in clean-up and restoration efforts.
Some of the best practices for external relations in crisis management are:
- Be proactive: Anticipate potential crises and prepare contingency plans for external relations. Monitor the external environment and identify emerging issues or trends that could escalate into a crisis. Communicate early and often with external stakeholders to prevent misinformation or confusion.
- Be transparent: Provide accurate, timely, and consistent information about the crisis and its impact. Acknowledge the problem and take responsibility for the actions or decisions that led to the crisis. Explain the causes and consequences of the crisis and the measures taken to resolve it.
- Be empathetic: Show concern and compassion for the affected parties and express regret or apology for any harm or inconvenience caused by the crisis. Demonstrate empathy and understanding of the emotions and expectations of external stakeholders. Offer support or assistance to those in need.
- Be responsive: Listen to and address the questions, concerns, or feedback from external stakeholders. Provide updates on the progress and outcomes of the crisis response. Engage in dialogue and collaboration with external stakeholders to find solutions or opportunities for improvement.
- Be strategic: Align external relations with the organization’s vision, mission, values, and goals. Identify and prioritize the key messages and audiences for external relations. Use appropriate tone, language, and style for different media and audiences. Evaluate and measure the effectiveness of external relations and adjust accordingly.