Sean Pattwell is the founder and CEO of CW8 Communications
Covid-19 exposed a truth communications practitioners have long known: no business is immune from a crisis. Thankfully, global pandemics are rare, but high profile lawsuits, financial scandals and employee relations issues are common. As Gilette and Pepsi learned to their cost last year, even a well-intentioned advertising campaign can provoke an intense backlash. For startups and scaleups, a crisis can derail growth and deter potential investors if managed incorrectly.
In a world where cancel culture is now a dominant force of social pressure, CEOs are only one poorly thought through tweet away from decimating a reputation they have spent a lifetime building.
So, how can startups manage a crisis when it hits?
Give your PR team a seat at the table from the start
Despite the fact that the PR or communications teams are the ones who will field calls from journalists for comments, senior leadership often forget about them until the last minute. This can result in mixed messages and confusion. When major decisions are set to be announced to the public, involving your staff who have media relations experience at an early stage is wise.
PR teams can predict the questions the media will ask and prepare statements and responses, ready senior leaders for interviews and press conferences, and run interference in the face of aggressive media questioning.
Deliver news with compassion, credibility and control
This is particularly true for bad news like redundancies. The tech world has managed this well during Covid and senior managers at startups can learn from how they communicate bad news. Mudassir Sheikha, CEO of Careem, wrote a lengthy note to explain how Covid-19 is impacting the company’s strategy, its current focus, why the company needs to make redundancies and how it will happen. He recognised that many of the people they need to let go are talented and contributed greatly, as well as steps to help them transition to the next stage of their careers.
Retain your authenticity, integrity and purpose
In times of crisis, it can be easy to lose sight of what is important. Don’t. People buy into startups because of the stories they tell. One reason tech companies have received accolades even as they lay off thousands of staff members is that they stayed true to their vision and mission. For the ever-expanding millennial and Gen Z workforce, living your values is not just a matter of sloganeering. It matters. Companies that describe their workforce as a family cannot get away with providing statutory minimums when it comes to redundancy.
That is why companies including Careem, AirBnb and Uber have gone above and beyond with their redundancy packages, offering significant financial compensation, maintaining health insurance for redundant employees until the end of the year, and offering retraining and transition support. How you communicate is crucial, but as always, actions speak louder than words. When you are building your reputation on the world stage, it is crucial that your values and your decisions align.
Although redundancy is just one of a myriad of crises that can hit a company, it perfectly illustrates the principle that while a crisis may be inevitable, chaos is not. In many cases, the impact of a crisis is less about its nature and more about the company’s response. If your CEO and other senior leaders have not been trained on crisis communications, the time is now.