Why this crisis response left us with a frown

One bank has been giving its customers plenty of reasons to scowl in the past few days.

Technology woes left them unable to access their accounts for days.

And, to make matter worse, many took to social media to voice their concern about a lack of communication on the outage.

Customers of Smile Bank, which operates online, endured a miserable week with intermittent issues logging into the app and online banking.

The bank reported that the issue had finally been resolved on Saturday (11/7), a week after it was first reported - you don’t need us to tell you that that’s a long time for an online bank to be regularly offline.

So, how did the bank manage its time in the spotlight and are there any crisis media management lessons others can learn?


Coronavirus is not the only story

It can feel that coronavirus is the only story around as it continues to dominate the headlines.  

But scratch beneath the service and you’ll find there are plenty of other stories – good and bad – being reported.

The pandemic does not mean businesses are immune from negative coverage when their systems go wrong, they lose data or suffer any of the other events that can typically trigger a crisis media management incident. 

BBC News and Sky News were among the media outlets that covered this outage, creating damaging headlines for the bank, while Which? has published a detailed report on the rights of its customers.

Online bank Smile suffers IT woes as customers struggle to access website and app Sky News

‘I left Smile Bank today due to ongoing outage’ BBC News



When you are in the media spotlight for the wrong reasons, whether in the mainstream media or on social media, how you communicate is crucial.

Communicate quickly and regularly and you can develop some control of the situation and the way it is reported.

One of the interesting things about this incident is that Smile’s communication appears to have been limited to one social media post a day and a statement to the media.

Does that feel like enough when your customers cannot access your services or when you are an online bank that actually isn’t online?

No wonder some of the people interviewed in the BBC report complained about the communication they had received during the incident.

And similar criticism of that communication can be found on social media.

In any crisis media management incident, you need to keep the media and your customers regularly updated.

Even if you have not been able to solve the issue or make significant progress towards solving it, you still need to let people know that you are working hard to get services back to normal.

It shows that it is still a priority and that you are determined to find a solution. Silence suggests you may have forgotten about it.

Customers would rather have regular updates that offer little new information than go 24 hours without hearing from you.


Say sorry like you mean it

If you look through Smile’s posts on the outage, the same phrase keeps appearing – “we apologise for any inconvenience.”

If you were one of its customers, would that make you feel that it understood the problems you were experiencing being unable to access your accounts?

Or would it make you feel that it had simply used the same apology it uses every time something goes wrong?

We’ve mentioned this phrase before in our media training and crisis communication blogs because brands should stop using it.

It sounds like something an organisation thinks it should say, rather than something it genuinely feels. It implies an organisation is not completely convinced it has caused inconvenience, or could be seen as an attempt to play down the significance of what has happened.

If you are going to say sorry, it needs to look like you mean it. People will know when you are not being sincere.



There has been little detail about what caused the Smile outage and what had to be done to resolve the issue.

All it has been prepared to say is that there were “intermittent issues” and that it was eventually resolved after “emergency maintenance.”

It is all a bit vague and what happened is anyone’s guess.

If I was a customer, I would want more of an explanation as to why I was unable to access my accounts.

The approach taken by Smile lacks the transparency and urgency brands should strive for in a crisis media management response.

Customers want to know what went wrong, what action is being taken to fix it and what is being done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.


If you don’t want your customers to grimace and frown at your crisis media management response, you need to communicate with CARE. That is an acronym we use on our crisis media training courses which means that you need to show Compassion, Action, Reassurance and Examples.

Sadly, Smile customers do not appear to be beaming much at the moment.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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