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Political savvy in times of crisis

3rd June 2019

If they aren’t prepared and ready, a competent leader can be undone in a crisis, affecting both their business and personal reputation. Here, Sandra Hills OAM, CEO of Benetas, shares her ‘top tips’ for being a politically savvy leader and the steps she takes to manage a crisis.

Political savvy means different things to different people. To me, it means understanding the political environment you are working in. It is much easier to make informed decisions during a crisis if you are knowledgeable about your environment.

Savvy leaders know what political parties are saying about their sector. They understand what industry peak bodies are saying and what consumers, professional bodies and unions want to see happen. They’re also aware of the media climate and what is being said on social media.

As a CEO, I keep comprehensive oversight over what is happening politically at all levels of government, and I do the same in the health, ageing and community services space.

Politically astute leaders are also fortune-tellers. They know what may become an issue for their organisation and they use this knowledge to prepare for a crisis. In this context, four of my six ‘top tips’ for being a politically savvy leader relate to being prepared.

Be prepared

As a leader, it’s essential to foster a culture that acknowledges risk will always be with us, and that there are proactive ways to deal with it. You need a good working knowledge of where the risks are in your business and what your organisation is doing to address or mitigate them.

(To do this, you need to know your political environment back to front, as I said earlier. This will help you identify if stakeholders will view a risk as acceptable, not acceptable or a grey area.)

Advance planning is ‘Queen’ when it comes to risk and crisis management. Make sure you have Business Continuity Plans and a Crisis Communication Plan. These tools allow you to respond without delay, thereby minimising the risk to the organisation and its reputation.

In the thick of it

My next top tip for being a politically savvy leader is this: when an incident occurs, your team will look to you to set the tone, pace and approach. At this time, a balance of perspective, focus, action, authenticity, concern and humility is crucial.

When an issue or crisis hits, an ability to make a quick assessment of the reputational risk is the best guide for determining next steps. First, I assess the reputational threat associated with an incident. This means considering what is known about the incident and where responsibility would typically lie.

For example, the public is unlikely to hold an organisation responsible for an incident caused by natural disaster. But companies are held responsible for preventable errors or misdeeds that cause harm.

Second, I assess any reputational threat associated with the broader environment. This means thinking about the incident in context and identifying any intensifying factors. For example, if the event has occurred before or the incident is sitting amidst other sensitivities or controversies, then the reputational threat obviously intensifies.

Once I have a handle on the reputational risk, appropriate strategies are put in place to manage it. For example, Benetas has a Crisis Management Team with a designated Communications Coordinator. The Coordinator mobilises the Crisis Communication Team to help manage the communication demands associated with an incident.

This leads us to my final top tip for being a politically savvy leader: when an incident occurs that might attract media attention, always have your key messages ready. I use a five-step process to help clarify key messages, and I recommend you start this process as early as possible.

Step 1: Establish the facts. Before you begin, you must confirm the basic details about what happened from an authoritative source. This is the ‘who, what, when, where and how’ of the incident. Remember, it’s never permissible to publish any information regarding deaths or injuries until the relevant authority, such as the police, has confirmed the details and announced it.

Step 2: Communicate what you know. You should start communicating the basic verified facts as soon as you can, regardless of whether there are gaps. This would include what happened, when and where it happened, who was affected and, if known, how it happened. Don’t be tempted to communicate assumptions or speculations. As time progresses, more verified information will be available and can be added to the messaging.

Step 3: Acknowledge ‘unknowns’. This includes points that are not yet clear or verified. It is perfectly acceptable to state that the reasons for the incident are still unclear and that you’re working closely with authorities to understand what happened.

Step 4: Explain what you and/or other organisations, such as emergency services, are doing. This should include medium- and long-term actions.

Step 5: Instruct people in what you want them to do. Those affected by or observing the situation will seek direction on how the incident may affect them, what they should do about it and where to find more information.

In addition to the five steps to message development, I would like to share the five general principles of a crisis communication response:

  1. Keep those affected top of mind. It’s not all about you.
  2. Respond quickly: in the age of social media, a response may be required within minutes.
  3. Inform key stakeholders first to ensure they do not receive second-hand information or misinformation through mainstream or social media, or by word of mouth.
  4. Continue to monitor all forms of media.
  5. Continue to update stakeholders and the general community.

How to finish well

Despite the best-laid plans, things don’t always go according to plan. And, even when a strategy is well executed, there is always a remedial action that can be taken. The post-crisis period is just as important as how well you do in the thick of it.

There is no time to sit back and congratulate you. It’s important to undertake a ‘lessons learnt’ exercise to address the operational and communications response and rebuild reputational capital with stakeholders. Show your clients why your organisation is worthy of their trust by fixing whatever caused the crisis in the first place.

In closing, let me say this. In 2018, Deloitte published findings from a study on crisis management and preparedness.1 The study of 300 board members from across the globe was undertaken in 2015. The survey found that managers need more development for crisis management. A politically savvy leader is a leader of leaders, and I encourage you to help your people be crisis ready.