“I had no intuitive idea on how to move forward.” Those were the words of AP Moller-Maersk’s CEO, Søren Skou, when recently interviewed about a cyber-attack he faced in June which shut down the shipping giant’s IT systems.

Not all CEOs are as admirably honest about that initial feeling of insecurity brought about by a crisis.

As Skou points out, immediately getting to grips with the detail and showing leadership is critical. Internal and external communications take on paramount importance.

And whilst there has been lots of analysis from PR professionals about the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of communication when you’re in the thick of a crisis, considerably less attention has been paid to how you move forward after the crisis period is over.

This, of course, prompts a key question: when can you consider a crisis to have ended?

Unfortunately, there’s no obvious answer. Some might feel it’s the day when suddenly the media coverage drops off a cliff. But crises have an ugly habit of resurfacing as new information emerges or journalists take the story forward.

If a decisive action appears to put an end to the problem, and a prolonged period of calm follows, then you can be cautiously optimistic that the crisis might have reached its endpoint.

But deciding how to move on from the crisis is a different issue altogether.

A feeling of being battered and bruised by a barrage of negative press attention can cause a fight or flight reaction.

When it comes to future media engagement, some executives will retreat into themselves, scarred by the experience. Others may feel unfairly treated by the press and be more bullish, attempting to get on the front foot again.

It is at this stage that sage and honest communications advice can prove invaluable.

There might be an impression within the company that the problem has been fixed and that the crisis is over. Time to get back to business as usual.

However, that view might not be shared by external stakeholders such as investors, customers, and the media.

They might think it’s far too soon to be shouting about that new contract win or sustainability initiative. Alternatively, reporting the next set of results without mentioning the crisis might show a lack of contrition and feel tonally inappropriate. This risks further reputational damage.

Whilst it would be unwise to advocate a one-size-fits-all approach, there are some guiding communications principles which should be considered in the aftermath of a crisis:

  • Reassess your engagement. Keeping a lower profile with the media is often the safest approach after you’ve dealt with a crisis. Getting straight back to regular levels of media engagement risks people thinking you haven’t taken the issue seriously enough. However, don’t be evasive.
  • The road to recovery is longer than you might think. You may believe you’re out of the woods, but your external stakeholders won’t necessarily share that view. The tone of your communications should reflect this.
  • Showing contrition. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you’ve been humbled by a crisis, so long as it’s genuine. At the same time, don’t feel compelled to keep apologising if you’ve made a sincere apology already.
  • Showing you’ve learned your lessons. This is the most important point and helps to move the story forward. Actions always speak louder than words. So the best way to show that you’ve dealt with a crisis is to demonstrate that you’ve taken decisive action to deal with the last one and to help prevent the next one. It displays leadership and responsibility. Over a longer timeframe, it can even be used to turn what was a corporate weakness into a strength.

A company that never experiences a crisis in its corporate life is a lucky one. For the overwhelming majority of companies that do, it becomes part of their journey and DNA.

Whether it becomes a scar on their corporate history or simply a blemish will, to a large degree, be dictated by the communications response, not just during, but also after the crisis hits.

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