Ten tips in a financial PR crisis

Posted by Martin Stott

Most financial firms will face an unforeseen problem at some point. These crisis communications tips should hopefully help if the manure starts flying at speed towards your fan.

1. Resist the temptation to hide

The default human position in a communication vacuum is paranoia. Don’t underestimate the capacity of investors to think things are far worse than they actually are. The truth may be unpleasant but also a relief. Be proactive. Explain what’s happened and why.

2. Prepare your messaging 

Prepare a crisis communications briefing with the key points you need to make and model answers to difficult questions to support verbal communications. Prepare well-written general client communications and Q&As. This isn’t about spin and evasion. It’s about ensuring your communications are concise, coherent and consistent – and demonstrating your competence.

3. Keep up the communication

Make sure you keep up the information flow if things drag on. Don’t go silent and let paranoia creep in.

4. Talk in plain English

Lawyers are friends. They are employed to protect you, but that means their default position is often cover-your-ass legalise, which can confuse and anger clients. Don’t be afraid to challenge them and work together to find a sensible balance. Consider, for example, supplementing any particularly long and necessary legal communication with a short but compliant plain-English Q&A.

5. Don’t automatically run from the press

Journalists? I was one. Their default position is healthy/cynical scepticism. Be straight and as open with the media as possible, given legal and commercial constraints. It may mean giving them background off the record initially. This carries some risk, but being evasive and unhelpful just arouses suspicion that you’re hiding something serious and colours their approach to the story.

6. Lock the back doors, close flapping windows

When a crisis breaks you need to be in control of who’s talking to whom and what they’re saying. Ensure staff know who’s handling media and client enquiries, where to direct people with questions and that only appointed spokespeople are to speak to the press.

7. Put things in context

Though we prefer to embrace proactive communication, if your crisis is part of a bigger crisis resist being the only one who talks to the press, needlessly making your problems the peg on which the story is hung. When communicating, explain what’s happened within the broader context.

8. “I don’t know” is OK

When all hell is breaking loose it can take a while to grasp what’s happened or what you’re going to do next. Don’t be afraid initially to say “I don’t know”, “We’re looking into this” and “I’ll come back with an answer as soon as I can”.

9. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

You so, so want to give people positives, but be careful about saying when you think an agreement will be signed, the crisis will end or what return you dare hope investors might receive – at least not without lots of caveats. I’ve never known a crisis resolution pan out on schedule or exactly as expected.

10. Be honest

Frankly, this should be so obvious as not to need saying – which is why it’s last. “Be sure your sin will find you out.” Probably with the help of social media.

Get in touch if you find you need some help with crisis communications.

Martin Stott is CEO of Bulletin

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