The Yooralla tragedy involving abuse by a casual carer has been popping up in the media since June. What we know now hasn’t really changed from what we were told in the original reports. But what we do know is that a very disturbing set of circumstances has taken place under the roof of one of our most recognised not-for-profit organisations and it has been handled very, very poorly.
Inflaming the issues further is the fact that families of victims were not (a) alerted to the allegations and charges laid against the carer and (b) given advanced warning of police interviews. It was only on the following day that the families were given details about the situation and it was not from Yooralla, but from the police.
Naturally, a situation like this will always be extremely difficult to manage. But what Yooralla has demonstrated is that when you don’t set up the right strategy from the beginning, issues management can tumble out of control and you can hurt infinitely more than your brand.
Issues management at every stage requires the sensitivity, experience and finesse of professional, dedicated communicators who take stakeholder relations seriously. As professionals in the marketing and public relations fields we have a unique set of skills that, with judicious and considered application, can prevent the sky from falling in on an organisation and its stakeholders when something of this magnitude goes wrong.
Yooralla clearly failed to plan for effective issues management and the fall out was bad for them and devastating for their stakeholders. I’m not saying that organisations should have a plan in place to play doctor to their brand when sensitive, organisational issues rear their heads. What I am saying is that establishing and carrying out a sound communications strategy can do more than resurrect a damaged profile – it can help heal the organisation and stakeholders.
So, for a moment, let’s take a closer look at what we can do to become exceptional communicators, to protect and inform stakeholders, through a strategic lens:
Think carefully about who your stakeholders are. Whether they’re involved at the heart of the event or issue, or whether they’re on the periphery, all your stakeholders must be identified. Regardless of how important they are to the bottom line you must put them on your list of people who need to be considered in your communications strategy.
Get inside stakeholders’ minds. Make sure you clearly and calmly think through what they would want to know, how they’d like to receive updates and news and when they would like to receive it. Do what is right for them.
Appoint a key stakeholder team. During times of crisis, leaked information (whether it’s right or wrong) will spread like wildfire and is damaging for all parties. Make sure the entire process is managed carefully by a tight-knit and trusted team, and make sure they keep the details to themselves.
Be considered when executing your plan. The planning stage is paramount, but so is the execution stage. Make sure everyone involved in stakeholder relations is informed of the strategy and their roles within it. Consistency is key and tasks must be well defined.
Assign one spokesperson to the task of publicly speaking about the issues at hand. It is very important to inspire confidence and consistency in how an issue is being managed. A good way to do this is to have an appointed spokesperson – intimately familiar with the communication strategy – to publicly communicate with stakeholders, whether it be via media, enewsletters, blogs, in-person meetings/briefings or videos.
Assign someone to take incoming queries. Make sure this person or persons are well-briefed on the process for handling enquiries. Anticipate all the different types of enquiries and complaints you might get and marry them to efficient, well-defined processes. Make sure each stakeholder receives a timely response.
These are just a few tactics relevant to effective issues management. Nonetheless, they are often overlooked, to the detriment of stakeholders and organisations alike. From the outside it seems that Yooralla forgot one of their most important and sensitive stakeholders directly involved in their business and their issue handling: the families of the victims. (Not to mention that there are also dark clouds hovering over their handling of the actual complaints of the abuse from both victims and other carers.) That the organisation is now viewed in a terrible light, one of selfish secrecy and incompetence, is entirely its own fault for the utter mismanagement of its communication and stakeholder relations processes.