The role of HR leaders during a corporate crisis

A London workshop considered the role and responsibilities of the HR community in planning and managing a crisis

How do you prepare and manage a crisis from an HR perspective? How can you be sure your response is balanced and proportionate, while maintaining corporate reputation and survival, and staying sensitive to the needs of the public, customers, the media, social media and staff – in fact anyone impacted by the issue?

A breakfast workshop in London held on 16 May 2019, organised by the Financial Times HR Forum in partnership with  Headspring, considered the role and responsibilities of the HR community in planning and managing a full-blown crisis.

An audience of primarily HR and corporate communications professionals heard from a panel of expert speakers with in-depth experience of managing issues and crises in the commercial and government sector:

  • Sue Williams, former Head of Scotland Yard’s Hostage Negotiation Unit
  • Simon Walker, former Director of Communications at Reuters, Buckingham Palace and British Airways
  • The session was moderated by Michael Skapinker, FT contributing editor and columnist, and Executive Editor of Headspring

The workshop offered invaluable guidance for the audience on successfully managing a crisis:

  1. to protect corporate reputation and enhance the likelihood of business survival; and
  2. manage and communicate with the employee base to recognise the needs of staff.

Key takeaways from the session included:

Choose your crisis team with care. The crisis team should be drawn from the major stakeholders in an organisation – including areas such as sales, customer service, marketing, product development, as well as the more obvious areas of HR, communications and legal. It’s sometimes the case that HR will be overlooked in a crisis, so stake your claim to a place at the table. And the team should have direct access to the top; having to go through layers of bureaucracy to get decisions made is a great recipe for disaster.

Prepare for the unexpected. Scenario planning for a crisis can anticipate any number of possible issues – many of them the more extreme such as loss of life, a company accounting scandal or a major cyber-attack – but it is often the more prosaic that actually happen. Unpredictability is in the nature of crises, so plan how to deal with the unexpected.

The best crises are those that never happen. While many crises will occur in the full glare of publicity, a well-managed issue may never become a crisis.

Choose the best person to represent the company – and it’s not always the CEO. In the event of a crisis, choose your spokespeople carefully. Media training plays its part, but the spokesperson should be capable of staying calm under pressure and credible in front of the public, or the TV cameras. Don’t assume the CEO is always this person; depending on the scale of the crisis and how the story unfolds, it may be better to keep the CEO in reserve – but it is the circumstances that dictate the right approach.

Act quickly – and think on your feet. Don’t allow the crisis to get out of hand by allowing others to take control of the agenda. Stay ahead of the news by monitoring the media – and especially social media; the social media landscape has rewritten many of the rules of crisis management: if you don’t react, social media will react (and probably overreact) for you. Move quickly to respond with public announcements that are cognisant of the issues – and remain especially sensitive to the needs of people affected, whether they are customers, third parties or staff.

Be honest and truthful. Listen to what the lawyers say – particularly on issues of culpability – but don’t let the legal arguments prevail if the result is short-term gain with long-term reputational damage, or worse. Be sensitive to the people affected by the issue. The causes of a crises aren’t always obvious and more facts will probably come to light, but try not to let the facts emerge piecemeal. (On the other hand, don’t find someone to blame at the outset.) By being honest as you can early on – even if that means saying sorry for what has happened while the full facts are being investigated – you will most likely enhance the standing of the organisation later.

  • On the subject of legal liability: be careful about keeping records of conversations and written communications during a crisis, as they may be required to be used in evidence in the event of ligation or other legal liability. Don’t underestimate the power of the courts to demand copies of emails and other digital communication that may have led to the crisis: the electronic disclosure process can be ingenious and rigorous.


The FT HR Forum is a series of events designed by the FT 125 and Headspring for a community of HR and Learning & Development leaders. Members can learn new insights and share knowledge on the latest issues facing HR teams in big business.