Crisis control - it's all in the advance planning

A client of mine, which is part of a group, recently had a major crisis on its hands. It involved serious allegations about a member of staff that attracted widespread regional media interest.  Managed by the organisation’s central communications team, the issue was dealt with so beautifully, I felt it was worth sharing some best practice tips to help others navigate any issues in a similar fashion. The key to crisis management is always in the preparation and however laborious and time-consuming it may be, it’s well worth doing. By planning for something, there’s a strong likelihood it won’t happen - and there is also a lot to be said for knowing that if it actually does, you and your team are ready to roll with the right processes and procedures.

The best starting point is to gather key employees to identify what they perceive crises to be - this can provide critical insight into how people will react and the type of questions that will be asked.  This should be followed by a brainstorm of the type of crises that could arise to affect the organization.  For example, what would happen if the manufacturing plant had to close for a day or of there was a fatality at work?  How would the business manage a scare over contaminated produce or a call centre communications failure? There are many potential scenarios and it’s always worth considering the unexpected and thinking about how the business would respond.

The types of crises that can be experienced include:

•Structural (major long-term trends such as technological developments, over which the individual organisation has little control)

•External (mainly contextual issues such as environmental or community concerns, political imperatives)

•Short-term (arising from unforeseen events, eg a fire or flooding, bereavement, closure due to illness)

•Internal (industrial relations and the like)

•Current affairs (anything of immediate public interest, usually the subject of intense media coverage at the time)

•Potential (issues that have not yet emerged).

Once all the various nightmare situations are out on the table, a crisis manual then needs to be prepared. In this goes all the written plans that the company is likely to need should anything kick off. Actions and responsibilities should be listed and media statements should be prepared, although these will always need adapting to suit the situation as it unfolds. At this point it is important to agree who the company spokespeople would be and organize media training, if this has not been carried out before. In his book, ‘Communicating out of a Crisis’, expert Michael Bland advises carrying out crisis simulations to assess the team’s strengths and weaknesses and to follow up with regular audits – regular spot checks ensure staff stay on top of crisis policies and that crisis manuals are kept up to date.

When a major issue hits, speed is of the essence and the agreed plan of action should be cascaded back around the team so everyone is absolutely clear on what to do. A holding statement should be ready for the media within 30 minutes, even if the situation is still unraveling – it can be as simple as: “We have a crisis plan in place and are taking action.’ Never run for cover or let the crisis dominate – and make sure the business is communicating with all its stakeholders directly, not just via the media. If necessary manage expectations by offering an apology, explanation and solution and make sure the business follows through with any promises made.

It’s safe to say that crises are inevitable but reputational damage isn’t - how a business reacts can be far more important than the circumstances of the crisis and advance planning is key. All organisations are vulnerable, just in different ways.  By following best practice guidelines, it is possible for a business to survive a crisis not just with its reputation intact – but having strengthened it with forthright and ethical behaviour.