A startup founder’s guide to crisis communication

December 7, 2023
5 min read
A journalist records Ambassador Francisco Madeira, the Special Representative of the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (SRCC) for Somalia during a Press Conference in Nairobi, Kenya on December 21, 2017. SRCC talks about recent developments on the security front in Somalia especially the progress in the transitioning of the national security responsibility from AMISOM to Somali security forces. AMISOM Photo

Not many people start businesses hoping to run into challenges, but the nature of the journey is such that problems are guaranteed.

From data breaches to fraud attempts, startup closures to mass layoffs, many startup founders will have to deal with severe challenges at some point in their entrepreneurial journey.

While the hope is that they have the technical abilities to fix the problems, there’s often a need to communicate with the necessary stakeholders. But with many founders lacking the training or experience to navigate such situations, it is common to see founders and businesses bungle communication during crises.

As social media continues to play a significant role in how information is disseminated, founders must understand that whether it communicates and how it chooses to do so when faced with crises significantly impacts brand perception and can influence business performance. Uber famously lost 200,000 users after it tried to capitalise on a strike by taxi drivers.

Drawing on the experience of African tech PR professionals, this article offers a guide to help startup founders navigate crisis communication.

To speak or not to speak   

Depending on the size of your startup or the nature of the story, you can bet on getting some calls or emails from journalists. You may also have customers or the public demanding a response, and you may wonder if it's necessary to put out a statement.

Olugbeminiyi Idowu, Managing Director of Talking Drum Communications, explains that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to putting out responses. This means that your response should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, with the priority being a swift resolution to the crisis.

While some cases would demand a swift response, others may require you to stay quiet and ride out the storm. Furthermore, similar events can require different responses from different organizations. Startups, therefore, need a framework that helps them decide the best course of action.

“You need to have an escalation protocol. Basically, it’s like a matrix that you work through that enables you to analyse the level of risk that the situation poses to the organization and then you take your decision on whether or not you respond based on that.”

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Creating and executing a communication strategy   

In crisis situations, startups often have to communicate with the relevant stakeholders. This includes investors, customers, regulators, and the press, and having a communication strategy is highly recommended.

“The first thing they should do is hire a PR professional,” Idowu says. “When it comes to these things, there’s no substitute for experience and someone who knows what they are doing because it just means the process of making a decision is a lot shorter,” he adds.  

Great soldiers are not forged on the battlefield, and great communication strategies are not formed in the midst of crises. Idowu advises that startups anticipate problems before they happen and craft a coherent strategy for response.

Bill Gates once said that success seduces people into believing they will never fail, and it is easy to think your startup will never need to deal with a crisis. But if you have any hopes of succeeding, you should also prepare for crises. As Jessica Hope, founder of PR firm, Wimbart, said, “the ideal situation is that you spend time and energy writing a crisis communications plan, and you never have to use it.”

Avoiding common PR mistakes founders make   

Most founders are not media savvy and would never be. However, the more successful your business gets, the more the spotlight shines on you. Success also comes with quite a few hurdles, and knowing the PR mistakes to avoid could literally save your brand and business a lot of money.

For Idowu, the major PR mistakes founders make have to do with communication. Do you speak or stay silent? If you speak, what and how much should you reveal?

Especially in an age of social media, what founders say or do not say can define how a situation plays out. When in doubt about the best approach, he advises speaking with a PR professional. He, however, gives a general guideline.

“Go down to the most important thing to communicate at that moment and communicate it as clearly as possible.”

Additionally, founders should only speak when they have the facts of the situation. When Samsung launched the Galaxy Note 7 in 2016, it had high hopes for the smartphone, but barely a month later, there were widespread reports that the phone was blowing up.

Samsung acted quickly, suspending sales and recalling the Galaxy Note 7. However, it failed to get an accurate reading of events before putting out a statement. It incorrectly stated that users in certain locations would not be affected and that the batteries were responsible for the combustion, only for subsequent events to prove them wrong.

Fortunately, it was able to recover from the crisis, but its communication buttresses why startups must only communicate the facts of a case.

Crafting the right narrative through media relations

There’s an eternal battle between the media and African startup founders, with the latter often questioning the need to report on certain stories.

It’s important to point out that the job of a journalist is to report on events in the spaces they cover. Quite frequently, these events will be negative, and concerned parties would rather not speak about them. However, good journalists do not cherry-pick what stories they report on.

To tell a balanced story, journalists will typically reach out to concerned parties with requests for comments, and Idowu has a few tips founders can use to navigate relationships with the media.

“When the press reaches out, engage. If there’s something you need to clarify, clarify it. I’ve seen situations where a journalist has reached out multiple times and many of these emails are not responded to, and I think that’s unhelpful.”  

With founders often concerned with controlling the narrative, he points out that building relationships with journalists before a crisis makes it easier for startups to get a handle on the narrative.

A journalist who has previously spoken or speaks with a founder would often have more context compared to one who has to feed off press releases. Admittedly, founders may not have the desire or skills to do this, but PR professionals can help with building and nurturing these relationships.

Crisis management doesn’t end once the crisis blows over. Idowu advises that startups initiate protocols to ensure the problem doesn’t come up again.  

“Nobody goes into business to manage a crisis. You go into business to serve customers, so make sure that when all is said and done, you are set up to get back to what you actually want to do.”

Accidental writer, covering Africa's startup landscape and its heroes. Find me on Twitter @chigo_nwokoma.
Accidental writer, covering Africa's startup landscape and its heroes. Find me on Twitter @chigo_nwokoma.
Accidental writer, covering Africa's startup landscape and its heroes. Find me on Twitter @chigo_nwokoma.

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