The media wants answers. Self-proclaimed experts are casting judgements on social media. Meanwhile, inside the business, there’s blame, denial and recrimination. When a crisis breaks, the pressure from all sides will be immense unless you’ve taken the time to prepare for the worst and have a team that can calmly manage the various channels and relay the right message while the problem is fixed.

John White, UK Head of Resilience at KPMG, says: “Perspective, and the ability to appreciate how events and actions will be perceived by all stakeholder groups, plays an important role in the decision-making process. Good decisions are based on good information, and an effective crisis team will ensure they have a tried and tested means of gathering, monitoring, sorting and prioritising information from all sources.”
A similar point is made by Steve Cooper, Head of Personal and Business Banking for the UK Retail & Business Bank at Barclays: “At Barclays we have a dedicated person to lead our reputation and crisis committee. I’m not sure you necessarily need to have a board role for that but I do think you need clarity when a crisis occurs as to who is going to coordinate and pull that together.”

When it comes to communicating events to the media, an informed, joined-up response is essential. Professor Dominique Turpin, President of IMD and Criticaleye Thought Leader, says: “Different types of events call for different responses. Not every crisis requires the CEO to go and talk to reporters but, in all cases, the CEO should be kept informed and be kept close to the action, ready to intervene should the crisis deteriorate further.”

Furthermore, communication is only part of a company’s crisis management plan. Sandy Stash, Group Vice President of Safety, Sustainability and External Affairs at Tullow Oil, comments: “If you think back to The Exxon Valdez disaster [the oil tanker which ran aground on a reef off the Alaskan coast], one of the criticisms was that they didn’t get senior people out in front quickly enough. But, in recent times, I think companies need to be careful that the communications bit doesn’t become the tail wagging the dog.

“Rather than focusing exclusively on messaging, management needs to delve into details about the facts of the response and ask the hard questions … are we putting appropriate resources to this and making the right judgements?; are we doing the right things and being transparent?”

Need for Speed

Social media has undoubtedly made the process of managing a crisis more complex. Kevin Murray, Chairman at PR concern The Good Relations Group, comments: “The level of exposure because of social media and the nature of viral communications means that not only will [a potential crisis] be discovered quickly, but it can go global within seconds. How you respond to a crisis with that kind of speed attached to it has really stretched the capabilities of a lot of comms departments and many are no longer fit for purpose in the digital age.”

However, as John points out, the digital revolution has brought its advantages: “Organisations are now able to use social platforms to communicate with their customers and the media; close monitoring of social media activity can provide a good indication of public opinion and, in some cases, even provide an early warning to an organisation that a reputational crisis could be coming.”

Steve comments: “You’ve got to inform all your stakeholders: customers, colleagues, regulators, politicians, consumer groups; using social media to listen to the mood music… then obviously resolve as much as you can as quickly as possible. And if you can’t resolve it then put alternative solutions in place.”

No company is immune to reputational ruin, whether the cause is through flawed products, dishonest acts by staff, boardroom bust-ups, terrorist attacks or natural disasters. “Best practice in crisis management starts well before a crisis situation occurs,” says John. “Organisations must… maintain a chain of custody for known risk scenarios and ensure that an appropriate investment is made in planning to respond and recover.”

The risks are very real so the time and effort put into planning will make all the difference in the long run.

I hope to see you soon.