Crisis Management in a Borderless World

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Every business needs a crisis management plan that guides C-level staff and employees during a crisis. Founder and CEO of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd Nicholas Goh shares a tip sheet on what makes a plan intricate.

A few months have passed since the MH370 tragedy. Throughout the ordeal, Malaysia Airlines has come under fire, with many families and news agencies criticising its communication missteps and lack of swiftness and transparency. The tragedy serves as a timely reminder that crises can befall unexpectedly and that no business, however mighty or reputable, is immune. Every business needs a crisis management plan that guides C-level staff and employees during a crisis. Founder and CEO of Verztec Consulting Pte Ltd Nicholas Goh shares a tip sheet on what makes a plan intricate.

48 hours. In the world of crisis management, this is the golden hour equivalent a company has to address a crisis head-on and instil confidence. Handle the crisis well and affected customers will still remain loyal. Mishandle it and the blocks of trust built over the years will crumble.

When a crisis strikes, the crisis management team should take the lead. In “10 Tips for Reputation and Crisis Management in the Digital World”, Forbes recommends that the crisis management team should comprise members from public relations, human resources, legal, marketing and other relevant departments. A multi-disciplinary team will be able to craft a message that covers all the bases. This minimises the probability of future flip-flopping too. If the crisis involves accidents and deaths, then the company should look into hiring grief counsellors and psychologists to help families of victims process their emotions.

What are the key crisis management factors a company has to consider? Let’s find out.


Getting everyone on the same page

Bad news will cast a pall over day-to-day operations. As customers fly into a rage, many businesses turn their attention and channel all their resources to pacify them. One group of stakeholders they often neglect, however, is their most important one – the staff. This is a mistake.

The first thing the crisis management team needs to do is set up internal communication channels. Staff must be in the know; they cannot learn of the crisis while reading the news ticker during breakfast. Gather everyone in the same room to ensure that the message is clear and consistent, not diluted and polarising.

What is the company’s official stand? Are there any preliminary findings to report? When media outlets hound staff for comments, what should they say? Are employees allowed to talk about the crisis on their personal social media accounts? Even a retweet of a reporter’s allegations or theories could be taken as an admission.

In the article “How NOT to Handle a Crisis: XO Communications’ Monumental Fail”, Forbes discussed the importance of engaging employees. Their opinions matter and their talents should be tapped to help resolve any pressing issues. Because they know the ins and outs of the company, employees make great mouthpieces. Those who are not involved in the fix, said contributor Davia Temin, should be roped in to manage phone lines, emails and comments on social media platforms.

Managing emotions

Crises can generally be attributed to a few causes: human error, a lapse in judgement or noncompliance with regulations. During a crisis, tension swells in the office because eventually someone has to be held accountable. In “Crisis Management: Is Your Team Freaking Out?”, the online magazine Inc. identified the four types of negative behavioural patterns displayed by employees, and even managers, in times of adversity.

There is the panicker, who does not inspire confidence or make rational decisions. Then there is the finger pointer, who is quick to play the blame game. The retribution seeker is just like the finger pointer, except he wants to file a lawsuit against an outside hire for the oversight. The moral contortionist has the solution to end the crisis but it is one that betrays the company’s core values.    

These behaviours do little to help. Trying to find a scapegoat distracts the team from dealing with the problem on hand. Instead, top management should reassure employees that a solution is being sought. Until an investigation is launched, there is no telling who — be it an employee or vendor — is at fault. In fact, when a problem escalates into a crisis, it is very rarely the fault of just one person. When a company is in the thick of a crisis, all available resources should be channelled not to assigning blame but to solving it.


CEO to the rescue

In December 2011, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) trains experienced a series of breakdowns. Inconvenience to local commuters aside, contributor Marina Mathews wrote in Singapore Business Review that the number one grouse journalists had was the lack of media appearances by then-CEO Saw Phaik Hwa.

In contrast, when General Motors was embroiled in a controversy circa early 2014, newly-minted CEO Mary Barra took centre stage, addressed enquiries and owned the problem. At the time of her appearance, General Motors’s faulty ignition switches were found to be the direct cause of 12 deaths. Barra delivered a heartfelt apology and lamented the lost lives. Bloomberg later said that Barra had established herself as a “compassionate leader”.

The CEO should be the face of the company during a crisis, but need not be the only representative. It is just not possible for one person to attend all the media conferences, give interviews and still lead the company. The CEO should only be in the limelight when the company has breaking news to report or an important statement to make. Public relations professionals or hired experts can field the answers in the interim.

Keeping the CEO on reserve avoids media saturation. Also, in the event of a misstatement, the CEO can also exercise his authority, correct it and save the day.

Social media never sleeps

In July 2014, the National Library Board (NLB) removed three alternative lifestyle-themed children’s books as they were deemed incongruous with Singapore’s pro-family norms. Netizens against the decision changed their profile pictures to one of the three penguins with the caption “Free My Library”. According to The Straits Times, the Facebook group “Singaporeans United for Family” claimed 24,000 users supported NLB’s decision.

Evidently, social media has evolved and is no longer just a source of entertainment or a tool to reconnect with old friends. The public or consumers these days will turn to online platforms to voice opinions, seek help or air grievances. In the past, brick and mortar companies were answerable only to disgruntled members of the public or consumers. Now, the whole world is watching.

Hence, while helpdesks follow standard operating hours, the same cannot be said of social media platforms. During a crisis, Twitter and Facebook accounts have to remain active even after office hours, especially if customers expect regular updates. In the case of SMRT, they included operating hours — 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Public Holidays) — on their official Twitter handle. To customers the message was loud and clear: outside of these hours, their problems did not matter. Incidentally, the account was set up only three days after the first major disruption to rail services on 15 December 2011.

Contributor Marina Mathews also pointed out that a parody SMRT page, titled “SMRT Ltd (Feedback)”, was set up when the crisis unfolded. Then, many were misled into thinking the page was an official one. The administrator posted sarcastic comments when users gave feedback and many were confused by the tactless replies.

The lesson here is that social media must not be overlooked when managing a crisis. By setting up official social media accounts, a company can control the dissemination of accurate and timely information on these platforms. It should scan popular media platforms to keep itself informed and pre-empt any potentially detrimental situations. Actively – but tactfully – dispel rumours and assure customers that the company is doing everything in its power to tackle the crisis. Such efforts will help rebuild trust.

The internet and social media have essentially rewritten the crisis management playbook.


The weight of the world

When an organisation has to address a global crisis, as was the case for the Malaysia Airlines MH370 tragedy, certain issues come into play. Ragan Communications (Ragan), in the article “5 Lessons Learned From Malaysia Airlines’ Crisis Response”, identified culture as a potential problem. It pointed out that overseas media outlets are not likely to adjust to a country’s culture. For example, a CEO may be used to having journalists report only what he says. Overseas reporters, on the other hand, may ask hard-hitting questions, refusing to acquiesce and accept boilerplate responses.

Ragan suggested putting the key spokespersons through thorough training sessions until they become expert communicators. An example of such training would include intense mock conferences. During these trainings, the spokespersons must be prepped on identifying the external stakeholders in a scenario, their concerns and sentiments, and how the company should portray itself.

When addressing a multinational customer base, cross-cultural knowledge and sensitivities are pivotal. Ragan urged companies operating in different countries to train spokespersons to speak on their behalf when there is a crisis. For companies with a global presence, having trained representatives convey the facts in native languages will ensure that the intended message is not lost in translation.


On 17 July 2014, shock rippled through the world as news of MH17 being shot down broke. This news further embattled Malaysia Airlines, which is still reeling from the MH370 tragedy that happened only four months prior.

In the article “Inside Malaysia Airlines, Tears and Shock As Tragedy Strikes Again”, Reuters noted the airline’s more polished crisis management skills. It took the airline less than an hour to confirm via Twitter feed that it had lost contact with the aircraft – a stark contrast to its management of the MH370 tragedy where the airline took six hours to acknowledge that the plane was missing.

Back then, separate statements by government officials and military leaders often contradicted each other. This time round, it was decided that Malaysia’s Transport Minister Liow Tiong Tai would be the only official spokesperson. Facts were verified quickly and statements were released in a timely fashion.

Managing a crisis is easier said than done. As a crisis never unfolds in a linear fashion, there is no crisis management plan that is entirely foolproof. One thing, however, is certain: a people-centric approach must be taken. Employees and customers need two things: facts and assurance. Verify the facts and get them out as soon as possible. In the absence of facts, assure – let them know the company is sparing no expense in tackling the crisis.

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Nicholas Goh
Verztec Consulting
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