Snakes alive! Prepare your brand for the venomous crises lurking in the grass

By Caroline Smith and Allison MacDonald

What happens when your organisation is bitten by a crisis that threatens its reputation? It could easily devolve into a poisonous situation that could be damaging or even deadly to your brand. That’s why you need to identify whether it’s a “python” crisis or a “mamba” crisis, and prepare your response – your antidote – accordingly.

One example of a crisis that was managed appallingly and that consequently spiralled horribly out of control involved serious accusations of institutional racism levelled against the Yorkshire County Cricket Club in the north of England.

In 2018, a former Yorkshire player laid an official complaint that he had been subjected to racist abuse during his time there. The club sat on the complaint for a full two years, only launching an inquiry in 2020. By then, the damage had been done. The club lost sponsorships and had its international fixtures suspended. Most significantly, its reputation and image were in tatters.

This is a classic example of a crisis that didn’t need to happen. If the club had only intervened earlier, when the allegations came to light, and had acknowledged the problem, shown concern and investigated immediately, the damage would have been minimised.

How should a business or organisation respond to such a potentially explosive situation? In dealing with a number of crisis communications situations for clients over the years at Flow Communications, it’s become clear to us that for the best outcome, they need to act swiftly and to be honest, transparent, engaging, empathetic and, most importantly, take action to back up their words.

At Flow, we like to characterise two broad types of communications crises: the python and the mamba. We’ve chosen to personify crises as snakes for a reason – they can be venomous, even deadly, to a brand’s reputation.

Prepare for the python crisis

The Yorkshire imbroglio is a textbook example of a python crisis. You can see it coming as it approaches, sometimes for years. It’s a stealthy, encroaching, predictable crisis that slowly wraps its coils around your organisation, putting a stranglehold on your brand and inflicting maximum damage over time.

It’s often something that management is aware of and that’s lurking in the shadows, poised to strike. This could be allegations of fraud, tax avoidance or sexual harassment.

Avoid the python crisis at all costs – or at least mitigate its fallout. About 95% of all crisis communications cases are of the python variety, and most can be prepared for in advance – or even avoided completely.

If such a crisis strikes (or is looming), be open and honest with your communications team from the start – spill all the tea. Don’t expect them to lie on your behalf. Disclose all the details, history and context behind the issue, and tell them what you want communicated. Don’t expect them to make up your standpoint for you.

As mentioned, back up your talk with action. Align your messaging and your actions with your values. And be – not just appear to be – empathetic to any loss, damage or injury incurred by others.

Beware the mamba crisis

The mamba crisis is one that takes you by surprise. It’s a completely unpredictable crisis that strikes without warning, inflicting maximum damage very quickly.

This is one mean snake you don’t see coming. It could take the form of a natural disaster such as a flood, a fire or an “act of God” that has a serious impact on your business. Covid-19 was a mamba crisis. Or it could be an incidence of theft, industrial sabotage, kidnapping or a building collapse that sends your brand reputation into free fall, thrusting it into the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Just as the mamba is a fast-moving snake that strikes quickly and whose bite needs immediate attention, you also need to act swiftly to a mamba communications crisis.

An emergency situation demands an emergency response that establishes you as the primary – and most reliable – source of news and information. You and your spokespeople need to be seen as the go-to sources for the various parties needing information, so that your responses don’t get lost in all the cacophony around the incident.

Both types of crisis can be scary and even calamitous for a brand, but at least you can see the python coming – and prepare yourself and your communications team for it. Disinformation and misinformation thrive in a vacuum, so react immediately to get your views on the record, and then follow the correct steps to respond to and resolve the issue.

The last thing you want when your brand is facing a crisis is drama. So anticipate and prepare for those crises, or they may just come back to bite you.

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