15 Mar 2023

How leadership and communication can help navigate a crisis

These days we know all too well that one tweet can dismantle an individual or an organisation. However, you might be surprised to learn that it is often not those who send the tweet that end up in the firing line, it is those who react.


Last week, in an effort to retain its famous impartiality, it was the BBC that came under fire. Responding to a tweet from pundit Gary Lineker, criticising the Government’s new asylum policy, the BBC was swift in doling out a suspension that led to sports programming chaos, and the biggest crisis the broadcaster has experienced under the current Director General.

With the crisis playing out so publicly for all to see, it can be all too easy to focus on external communications – what the media is reporting, what the public is saying. However, a crucial element that shouldn’t be overlooked is an organisation’s internal communications.

The importance of internal comms

After all, it was not just the viewers that were left in the dark when programmes were disrupted this weekend, it was also the BBC’s staff. As more presenters dropped out in solidarity with Lineker, staff looked towards management for clarity. With rumours swirling and chaos mounting, it was imperative that the BBC reassured their employees on the plan to mitigate the situation.

However, it has been reported that it was a full day before staff heard from the plans, and that they were provided limited, and vague, information on what would be happening to the programming schedule.

In any organisation facing a crisis, the importance of empathy, as shown through internal communication and leadership cannot be understated. With a clear lack of it present this weekend, BBC staff were left to their own devices according to reports, unsure what they should be doing, or whether they should even be turning up for work.

Consistent and regular internal communication can help build confidence and reassure employees during a crisis. A lack of information can be unnerving for employees, particularly when social media is rife with speculation. While ensuring accuracy is key, staff also need to know what actions are being taken, and be reassured that their leadership team is resolving the crisis as quickly as possible. As we saw , confusion breeds confusion and only fuels your crisis, leading to further headlines.

Preparing for a crisis

While the BBC could not have anticipated the magnitude of the crisis it faced, there were ways that its impact could have been lessened. One of the most important elements of crisis communications is preparedness; by the time a crisis is in full force, it can be too late. Preparing an organisation in advance of a crisis can help ensure that messaging remains consistent and aligned, staff remain updated and decisions are made quickly and effectively. As crises escalate, comms must keep pace, and a robust preparedness programme ensures that an organisation’s response is adequately stress-tested and delivered with disarming confidence.

Not only should there be a clear crisis communications plan in place, there should also be a leader to see it through. This leader is in charge of mobilising their pre-determined crisis team, ensuring a consistent flow of information and taking decisive action. As such, leadership plays a crucial role in mitigating the effects of a crisis. Effective leadership can help an organisation navigate through the crisis, maintain its reputation, and emerge stronger.

What happens when one cultural institution goes against another? The answer: a crisis that dominates headlines and conversations, both online and offline. Taking place over just a few days, now, the damage is done, and the BBC has been left scrambling. Although it is never ideal to have a crisis play out so publicly, in this instance it was inevitable, and someone had to yield.

Bowing to the immense pressure caused by Lineker and social media, the BBC has apologised and vowed to undertake a review of its social media guidelines. Citing the many grey areas of its three-year-old policy, it is now up to the BBC to reconsider its approach and learn from the frenzy caused. This is, however, just the beginning, as the review will now be under huge scrutiny and may yet lead to a further extension of the crisis they face. Indeed, the BBC will have to look deeper, as its guiding principles and values are tested.

By Charlotte McGill

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