A Balancing Act: How to Make a Planned Strategic Announcement in the Wake of a Crisis
Imagine a company in crisis, perhaps an oil company dealing with an accidental spill. Internal and external stakeholders are asking difficult questions about the environmental impact, mitigation plans, and the company’s ability to contain the spill and protect against future accidents. Local communities and federal regulators are up in arms, litigation looms, and investors want to know how much this will all cost and how long it will take. Now imagine that in the days leading up to the accident, the company had also been in advanced talks to acquire a peer in a strategic acquisition.
A crisis of any size can significantly disrupt regular business activities, impacting both internal and external stakeholders and attracting unwanted attention. Following an unanticipated event, companies tend to prioritize returning to “normal” as quickly as possible, but what if another significant announcement – unrelated to the crisis – is already planned and imminent? How can the company pivot from managing a crisis to successfully making a strategic announcement and ensuring it gets the right reception from core stakeholders? Here are some principles to consider:
- Take the Pulse & Restore Trust – Depending on the nature of the crisis, stakeholders may experience heightened emotions, anxiety, and a loss of trust in the company. Employees who were on the frontlines of the crisis or part of the response team may feel overburdened and fatigued. Consider ways to gage the sentiment among your impacted stakeholders, such as conducting surveys or having managers meet with direct reports. Analyze traditional and social media commentary from other key stakeholders to understand the key themes of focus and primary concerns. Drawing on this data, prioritize addressing key concerns and restoring trust where necessary, whether by implementing new protocols or announcing changes to address the root cause of the crisis.
- Avoid Overcommunicating & Focus on Moving Forward – During the crisis and immediately afterwards, you likely communicated with your key stakeholders more than usual. Allow the cadence of communications to taper off naturally, communicating about the crisis only as needed. If possible, give stakeholders time and space between communications about the crisis and the upcoming announcement, and avoid tying the events together. As quickly as you can, transition your communications from crisis response to “regular” business-as-usual practices.
- Create Separation to Position the Announcement as a Standalone Event – Even when they’re unrelated, events that occur in sequence are often naturally linked in the minds of audiences. Frequently stakeholders and observers may speculate that an announcement you know was long planned and strategically necessary is just a knee-jerk a reaction to a crisis. Recognizing that not all announcements can be delayed, create as much messaging separation as possible between the events. Announcement materials should be forward looking and while it may be necessary to acknowledge the crisis and its impact, focus on the future and the announcement itself, positioning it as a proactive, strategic decision that supports overarching business objectives.
- Understand the Leak Risk – Announcements often leak, particularly those related to M&A. With heightened attention on the company due to the crisis, the leak risk is likely to be even greater. Develop a comprehensive leak strategy, including scenario planning and draft materials, and ensure your entire team – and especially your Board of Directors – understands the post-crisis environment for this announcement.
- Stay Prepared for Crisis Questions – While you are focusing on the announcement itself, the recent crisis may still be top of mind for stakeholders. Recognize that interviews or conversations about the announcement will also generate additional questions about the crisis and be prepared with bridging techniques to pivot back to the announcement itself.
Any significant strategic announcement requires extensive planning, consistent coordination, and a thoughtful approach to crafting a positive narrative that resonates with key stakeholders. After a crisis, the stakes are higher and it is inherently more difficult to plan, coordinate, and communicate news. To effectively navigate these hurdles, communication to stakeholders should be front and center, and leadership must take the additional time and effort necessary to make a successful announcement in the wake of a crisis.