Royal Commissions drive reform but also create chaos. With reform, companies restructure, and executives and directors lose their jobs.
There are some fundamental communication rules that prepare companies that are being called before a royal commission.
Experience has taught us that media training and crisis preparation rehearsals before royal commissions are a big help in the below.
First, you need a strategy and it must have buy-in and unity from the executive and board. Under the media spotlight, stress exposes division at the top. Disunity weakens strategy, undermines confidence, and damages reputation.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse caught a lot of companies flat-footed. With the financial services royal commission, some banks, not all, prepared better, and it showed. In the disability royal commission, some witnesses underperformed spectacularly, undermining confidence with stakeholders.
A key part of strategy is to clean house: anticipate the royal commission outcomes and achieve many of them before they are exposed.
Another is to prepare, prepare, prepare. When you appear, nimbleness will be crucial and only comes with planning.
Read and listen to witnesses who have appeared at other royal commissions. The hearings are stressful for witnesses. Royal commissions are set up to create significant change. Bluntly, commissioners want scalps.
If you are a witness, it’s a case of moving from ‘very bad’ to ‘less bad’ and using the royal commission as the beginning of a long process of rebuilding trust by being transparent, admitting mistakes and acting to remedy them.
To maintain the confidence of stakeholders, providers must ensure that the royal commission unearths as few as possible ugly surprises. This means, beforehand, undertaking painful internal reviews and communicating the findings to critical (including internal) stakeholders.
Apparently, more than 1300 aged care staff came forward to share their grievances with Four Corners as part of their research, which led to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.
You want staff as supporters, not critics, so do what is needed. It might be an apology and the start of the process of reform.
Remember, staff morale will fall during a royal commission hearing. People will want support because of the distressing evidence. And there will be changes flowing from the royal commission that will impact employees’ lives.
Develop a comprehensive communications plan across all other stakeholders as part of your strategy.
Prepare and rehearse what you will communicate to stakeholders, how it will be communicated, and who it will be communicated by.
Prepare, prepare, prepare. As carpenters say, “Measure thrice, cut once.”
Politicians may compete to be seen to be taking the strongest actions. They will be a key stakeholder. How strong are your relationships, state and federal?
People are already numb to ‘sorry’. Certainly apologise, if it’s real. But actions speak louder... So, an apology must include strong reform messages that are underpinned by action.
If the spokesperson of your organisation is not prepped, get him or her up-to-speed as soon as possible, or identify an alternative. In our experience, an effective spokesperson in these high-stress situations is a major contributor to repairing your organisation’s reputation.
And look after your spokesperson; he/she will have few friends in the leadup, during the hearing and after the royal commission report.