Crisis management is when an organisation deals with a significant unpredictable event that threatens to harm its day-to-day business operations or ongoing reputation, threatens harm to its stakeholders, or the general public. Three critical elements can define most crises.
A threat to the organisation.
The element of surprise.
A short decision time.
As I explained to a client some years ago, late delivery of a takeaway food order is not a crisis, but being caught short-changing your delivery drivers is. True story, and timely considering the issues facing gig economy delivery drivers at the moment.
Sadly, many organisations are not prepared. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to state that a crisis contains the element of surprise, and then espouse preparation as key, but in truth, you can prepare to an extent.
In previous roles I have held, senior teams have been reluctant to prepare as they felt to have an incident management plan was to admit there was a fault with their product and service. Nothing could be further from the truth - being prepared shows a deep respect for your stakeholders, and a strong sense of corporate responsibility.
You should assemble a crisis team containing senior managers from core business units such as marketing, finance, legal, operations, HR and your C-suite executives and take the time to identify what could possibly go wrong in your business - the things that would hamper business continuity and irreparably damage your reputation.
Most businesses would be devastated by a cyber breach, and there are countless examples of customer credit cards details being hacked. Not only is your ability to run your business impacted, but your reputation is in tatters if not carefully managed.
If you run a retail operation, then your supply chain is also critical, especially if you outsource manufacturing to other countries where work and pay conditions are not up to world standards. Consider fashion brands which have been caught out employing sweatshop labour.
You may need to hastily arrange a product recall after contamination. Think of the numerous imported frozen berry scandals last year about Hep A infected fruit.
If your factory burns to the ground, your ability to carry on with your business would be severely impacted without some sort of contingency.
Be Prepared The sad reality is that many companies are completely unprepared when a crisis hits despite business continuity insurance policies including coverage for a public relations consultant to rebuild corporate reputation. However, by the time you are claiming that expense, it could be too late, especially in this age of social media.
Social media can be both the saving and the downfall of a crisis. It moves much faster than conventional media which can assist disseminating your company’s message, but equally, if you don’t monitor it and respond in a timely fashion, it can spread like wildfire, causing you to lose control of the message.
Preparing an incident management plan in advance and regularly undertaking scenario training with your crisis team is vital. You should have considered potential scenarios, chains of communication and command (including out of hours contact lists), have authorised media spokespeople, have draft holding statements prepared, as well as company backgrounders. You should also have considered all the audiences you need to address and the communication techniques you will use.
Your audiences include employees, clients, directors, regulators, shareholders, customers, suppliers and investors. Each of these will require a bespoke communication vehicle, whether that is a personal phone call or email, or social media to keep people up to date.
Help! It’s too late
If the worst happens and you are not prepared, you need to respond quickly:
Make sure you offer as much information about the incident as possible. It is essential that you sympathise with your audience. You must send out a statement offering as much information about the situation as possible. Don’t lie - the media and your stakeholders are too smart to buy it for too long.
Be sure to outline what steps you are taking to mitigate the current situation
Reassure your audience it will not happen again and what measures you are implementing to prevent it
Communicate your company’s prior good record if appropriate
Provide contact details for further information and when you will provide the next updates about the situation
Provide restitution if necessary. That could be a day of free data or a free inspection of customers' products
A good PR consultant with crisis expertise can help you to develop an incident management plan, and can also jump into the deep end during an emergency to help you rebuild your reputation.