The importance of communicating effectively to customers and other audiences when you have a problem can never be overstated – as highlighted by the high profile resignation of one Mr Laurence Mackenzie.

Mr MacKenzie was forced to step down from his £250,000 position as the chief executive of Northern Ireland Water after Christmas shortages left tens of thousands of homes and businesses without water supplies.

The company was criticised for failing to prepare properly for disruption following December’s heavy snowfall.

Crucially, the public was heavily critical of a lack of information from the company. Angry customers complained that phone lines were jammed and the organisation’s website lacked up to date information.

Following hot on the heels of Mr MacKenzie’s demise is a concerted online campaign by angry air passengers who were stranded due to snow at Heathrow Airport before Christmas with little or no information. The Facebook campaign is calling for owner BAA’s Heathrow management team to resign immediately and is gathering considerable momentum.

Ok, you may say, these were exceptional circumstances with heavy and sustained snowfall at one of the busiest times of the year. But, no matter how bad a situation is, Heahtrow is discovering that you should always communicate with the people who matter, whether they be customers, shareholders or staff.

Another high-profile figure to have marked the New Year with a p45 following a public relations blunder is Liverpool FC manager Roy Hodgson.
The former Fulham and Inter Milan boss scored a disastrous PR own goal in the aftermath of the Anfield side’s 1-0 defeat to bottom club Wolves on December 29, stating that he hoped Liverpool fans “would become supporters” after failing to offer him “the famous Anfield support” during his troubled six-month reign.
By making the comments, Hodgson broke the first rule of football management: never criticise your own fans. This rule is especially pertinent at a club like Liverpool, whose fans have a reputation for being among the most vocal and loyal in the game, and who have endured a torrid season.
In the following days, thousands of Koppites demanded Hodgson’s dismissal on websites and internet polls, with one survey finding that 97 per cent of supporters favoured his departure. Liverpool’s owners had originally hoped to allow Hodgson to continue until the end of the season – when his position would be reviewed – but the furore almost certainly served to hasten his departure.
A highly experienced manager, he should have known better than to criticise his team’s own fans.

Like MacKenzie, Hodgson’s downfall can be attributed to his failure to adhere to the fundamental principle of effective crisis communications. The former failed to keep the public informed, the latter turned on his own side: both paid the price.

Even if the boss doesn’t resign following a crisis, the reputation of the organisation can suffer irreparable damage. And the negative publicity will remain online for a long time, often coming high on internet search engines.

How to avoid their mistakes
At Outwrite, we believe there are simple steps organisations can take to ensure they don’t fall foul of aggrieved customers or other audiences in a crisis.
• Don’t wait for the problem to occur. Write a crisis communications plan now
• Make sure everyone knows where the plan is
• List the names and details of contacts you will need to keep informed eg customers, employees, the media, regulators
• Define roles. Don’t put people’s names against them: they may be on holiday. Identify a pool of people and make them aware that they might be called on to take on certain roles eg media spokesman, customer liaison representative, employees’ representative
• Prepare a holding statement for issue in the early stages while you are still gathering information about what has happened
If something does happen:
• Contact your PR and press office straight away. They need to know so they can respond to media inquiries, which may occur instantly. If you don’t have a PR department, consider retaining an agency to carry out this role if ever needed
• Use the media: ask for their help if you need to get information out to the public quickly
• Issue updated statements as the incident progresses
• Even if you don’t have more up to date information to tell, say so: “No further information is available at the moment. We will issue updates as soon as we have them.” This provides reassurance
• Keep your website updated
And finally:
• Thank people for their patience and consider gestures of goodwill – blankets, plus free coffee and sandwiches would have gone a long way to quelling the rising anger at Heathrow airport!