Saturday, 25 August 2012

Components Of A Communications Strategy - The "Crisis-Mode Plan"









6) The "Crisis-Mode Plan"


 

This refers to the contingency plan - for instance, the steps/alternative routes to be undertaken - in the event of unforeseen circumstances which sabotage or negatively impact 'the desired good’. This component also covers crisis-prevention plans; 'Plan B' options; complete crisis-management systems; environmental and disaster recovery strategies, (where applicable); and damage-control actions.






This is the final component to consider in an effective communications strategy and quite frankly, the most important piece of the puzzle. This is due to the fact that we live in an ever-changing world, often functioning with incomplete information, and often required to produce results in circumstances beyond our control. We are also sometimes placed in situations whereby we lack the expertise or experience. It is little wonder thus, that even with the best of intentions, detailed planning and careful observations, we sometimes fail in our endeavours.





Failure appears to be one of the few constants around the globe - systems fail, economies fail, political models fail, projects fail and people fail.  However, it is sometimes in the midst of failures that our greatest achievements are recorded. Indeed history books reveal numerous inspirational accounts, born from 'failures', some of which were of:




I) Prolific inventor, Thomas Edison, who, building on contributions of others, was believed to have made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at (refining) the light bulb before succeeding in developing a practical incandescent light bulb, as well as an entire lighting system which made the incandescent light safe and economical.




II) Winston Churchill, who was renowned for his leadership of Great Britain during World War II, who generally had a poor academic record in school. He was defeated in elections for public office before he became Prime Minister in 1940, (at the age of sixty six), and even before his second term as Prime Minster in 1951.




III) Albert Einstein, who was the most-acclaimed scientist of the twentieth century. He however did not speak until he was three years old and was considered ‘lazy’, from elementary school through college, by his teachers and professors, many of whom thought that he would amount to nothing. He however went on to become a mathematical genius, developed the Theory of Relativity and was known as the 'father of modern physics'. 





 
These people persisted in their endeavours, were driven by relentless determination and became successful by asking the 'what-if' question.




In the organisational context, this 'what-if' question gives rise to the 'what-if-something-goes-wrong' issue which is essentially what this component entails.




Unfortunately, most organisations today do not have an established crisis-management plan. It is not until a crisis breaks that public relations and communications professionals are hastily summoned to 'contain' the situation. In such circumstances, these professionals are often under extreme stress, are expected to work miracles, and depending on the 'sensitivity' of the scandal, may work without full disclosure of the facts. Moreover, because there had not been a 'workable' model for managing crises, some professionals struggle with the transparency versus confidentiality dilemma - what should be disclosed (or admitted), and what  should be kept confidential - is often a fine balance which few master effectively.





Revelations from 3 crisis-management surveys

 




In his insightful post of August 8, 2012, Dr. Tony Jacques, an international authority on issue and crisis management, explained that the latest data from a survey of more than 750 investor relations professionals around the world, revealed that only two-thirds of companies had formal crisis-planning in place. Moreover, only half of those with a plan actually conducted crisis-simulation exercises. The study for Investor Relations Insight, reported that the interviewed investor relations professionals placed corporate reputation as the top priority in a crisis, ahead of share price and shareholder retention. Yet 53% stated that their departments did not take part in crisis simulations, while another 7% was unsure either way.




Similarly, an AON Risk Survey of over 500 major corporate and public sector organisations in Australia and New Zealand, ranked damage to brand and image as the single most important risk concern for the fourth consecutive year. However, there was little evidence that this concern translated into adequate crisis preparedness. 




According to The Rising CCO IV report of June 2012, conducted by global executive search firm, Spencer Stuart and global public relations firm, Weber Shandwick; nearly two-thirds, (65%),  of global chief communications officers stated that crisis-management experience was prerequisite for success and that improvement in corporate reputation was their highest priority. Crises were believed to bring along significant costs to the organisation that deal with them. It was reported that most CEOs, (74%), spent time on the resolution, approximately taking fifteen months to "get past the problem". Moreover, such crises tended to beget a host of other issues, such  as  more  media  scrutiny, (60%), more governmental scrutiny, (51%),  and  reduced employee morale, (42 %). 




Taking into account the negative impacts of crises on corporate reputation, translating to reduced confidence in the brand, (and by extension, a fall in the share price), as well as the possibility of reduced motivation at the workplace, I believe that a crisis-management system should be an integral part of the business strategy of any organisation.






Suggestions for effective crisis-management systems




Discussions in the social media platform LinkedIn have highlighted very useful suggestions for the crisis-management by professionals in the field, two of which are that:




 
1) Smart companies plan and set up crisis-management systems before the crisis breaks. They also regularly conduct simulations exercises.





2) Smart companies identify and utilise internal and external resources; they have multiple spokespersons and are flexible in deploying their systems1,




Let us examine each of these suggestions in detail.








Establishing crisis-management systems before a crisis


 





In view of the different revelations from surveys listed above and given the possibility of risks when embarking on new projects, launching complex initiatives which gulp millions of dollars, or operating in difficult terrains, having a contingency plan is crucial to the operational success of a company. And this 'Plan B' must be conceptualised and tested in periods of 'calm'.





As Skip King,  President of Reputation Strategies1 has affirmed, good crisis management is very difficult to achieve under pressure, particularly when one has an emotional stake in the outcome. Indeed the contingency plan should already have be established and tested. This is crucial before 'all hell breaks loose'.






For example, a telecommunications company, Firm T, new to the market as a mobile operator, has identified an area in the suburbs as being the most profitable for its services.






It is aware of the presence of  its competitors in the area who enjoy certain privileges for being the 'first entrants' in the region. These include: the interest and curiosity of potential customers; support from regulatory authorities, (given the transfer of technology to the area); and the goodwill of the community, (given the possibility of job creation etc.). Despite being recognised as having certain advantages over its competitors, such as being a smaller company with an exemplary customer service unit and a history of rapid response to technical-related issues, Firm T sometimes experiences a series of challenges. The most significant is poor network quality which could be caused by numerous factors - including congestion and poor equipment maintenance - all which lead to 'dropped' calls. Due to a real threat of a frozen system or worse, Firm T swings into action.


 



So as not to be unexpectedly 'grounded' in its operations, it sets up a crisis-management system comprising the actions to undertake when there is a sudden disruption to its services, as well as specific communications for the different stakeholder groups. It conducts spot-checks  every week and ensures  that over time, its 'back-up' infrastructure, such as switches and base transceivers stations,  are new and regularly serviced/monitored by skilled technicians, despite the significant financial implications.

 




The mobile operator also communicates to its customers that it would routinely conduct drills whereby it shuts down its operations at a specific period, (preferably during off-peak hours). With this move, it seeks to imitate a system failure so as to develop actions which would mitigate the negative effects of the crisis in the event of a system collapse.




While this crisis-management system may seem extreme, it does prepare Firm T for a sudden crisis, by considerably reducing its reaction time and allowing it to act 'with a clear head'. This is possible as it can take advantage of its small company size, its sound infrastructure, updated technology and the presence of experienced professionals. This option becomes useful when other factors not initially envisioned, become associated with the crisis.




By contrast, its competitors, without such a contingency plan, may suffer dire consequences due to their larger systems, un-coordinated actions and absence of functional back-up infrastructure; all leading to a prolonged interruption in their mobile services. When it becomes evident that their mobile services would not be restored in a timely manner, impatient customers, driven by the need to stay connected, would quickly migrate to other networks, such as Firm T's. This development would lead to the loss of significant revenue for the competitors, as well as reduced confidence in their brands, thereby negatively impacting their market share.







Identifying and utilising internal and external resources and having multiple spokespersons


 




It is one thing to have the functional 'back-up' equipment/infrastructure oiled and upgraded to be utilised when needed, and quite another to ensure that resources,  human and technological, are co-ordinated for effective deployment.





An idea that has been suggested by Dr. Tony Jacques, is the establishment of  a cross-functional 'Crisis-Management Team', (CMT), which should consist of people with authority to make decisions and people with expert knowledge.






While I agree that companies should set up the CMT and that it should be given the mandate to make decisions, I however differ in my approach to its professional make-up. 



I consider it more crucial that the CMT consists of professionals from the technical, legal, PR and communications divisions. The CMT should also identify and utilise when necessary, the company's internal resources, (the intranet, software and hardware capabilities etc.) and external options, (social media platforms, the media, other experts/consultants in the field etc.), to ensure a seamless execution of the company's crisis-management system.






Skip King has also advised that there should be multiple spokespersons in the event that the key spokesperson is unavailable when the crisis breaks1.





I agree.



I believe that these 'back-up' spokespersons should be trained, should be knowledgeable about the company's operations and should be members of the CMT. Flexibility with the way the entire crisis-management system is handled, so as to be easily adaptable to unfolding patterns, has also been deemed crucial by professionals.







The "Crisis-Mode Plan" is the most significant component in the Communications Strategy, without which, many organisations go bankrupt, socially and financially. As could be seen around the globe, crises, scandals and disasters wreck havoc on the bottom-line of any organisation. With proper planning however, negative effects could be greatly mitigated and the damage 'contained', while lasting solutions are sought.





Another point to note is that crisis-prevention efforts should also be explored and where practical, adopted. Indeed the warning: "it is better to be safe than sorry", takes on an almost 'prophetic' notion in this era of uncertainty.








Conclusion



You may recall that in  this post of March 2012I loosely defined a communications strategy as a standardised system of information flow easily disseminated to relevant stakeholders. I also stated that an effective communications strategy should comprise six components - the "What";  the "Why";  the "Who";  the "How";  the "When/How Long"; and the "Crisis-Mode Plan".




 
In the weeks which followed, I explored  how all six individual components, (the last of which is this post : the "Crisis-Mode Plan")  - each one fluidly leading to the next - have given credibility to this concept, leading to favourable outcomes in the organisation when successfully implemented.




 
As I had suggested in the past, communications strategies could also be employed in entertainment and political circles or in other fields whereby good perception maintenance is crucial for long-term relevance in the industry. (You are only as good as you are perceived). They are also useful in situations whereby reputation management is vital for the competitive edge.




 
I encourage researchers to test this concept via various methodologies as I am certain that empirical proof would highlight interesting aspects for future debates.




 
In the meantime however, due to its links to various organisational constructs in the behavioural science field, I believe that my communications strategy would be useful to leaders in particular. It could be developed as a practical model and easily customised for their different realities.




Despite what cynics might call a 'lofty' dream, this is my hope: that my communications strategy would be adopted by organisations around the globe, both profit and non-profit organisations, in order to maximise organisational effectiveness  and to promote healthier stakeholder relationships.




 
And I would continue to sing about the (practical) benefits of business communications to organisational effectiveness...








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1Skip King is President of Reputation Strategies. He has been managing high-visibility communications for more than twenty years, with special expertise in risk, sports, outdoor education, travel and marine industries.




N.B -  Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net




Saturday, 11 August 2012

Components Of A Communications Strategy - The "When/How Long"








5) The "When/How Long"


This outlines the proposed timeline from inception to completion. It is two-fold: highlighting a specific moment in time when a proposed action would be launched, as well as the duration of the initiative. It also encompasses the notion of  time management.




This component is often overlooked or not given the recognition it deserves for two reasons.




Firstly, those responsible for the delivery of the 'desired good' may get so involved in the consultation and planning phases or may feel the need to wait for confirmation of key criteria, that an announcement about an appropriate timeline for the initiative may be delayed. These people may feel justified, at a later date, to give a vague timeline for the project, such as: "the third quarter of the year".




Secondly, (as could be the norm for complex projects in certain industries like the oil and biotech industries or in other divisions with rapidly-evolving technology, such as the IT, telecoms and manufacturing sectors), the ever-present cloud of uncertainty makes it difficult to pinpoint the precise duration of a project. Therefore a statement such as - "barring all hitches, the project could take eight to twelve months to complete" - would be considered sufficient when dealing with incomplete information, or with some elements of risk.

                                   


                

However, it is very important for the "When/How Long" discussion to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders for proper planning. The well-known saying: 'time is money', comes to the fore because people prefer to allocate a certain portion of their 'productive' period for a specific return. There is nothing more annoying for true professionals, irrespective of the countries in which they work, to have their time, (and by extension, their efforts), wasted on insignificant issues; time which could have been utilised for other profitable endeavours that would have yielded more favourable results.




At the workplace, clear communication of this component, backed up by a powerful rationale (the 'Why'), actually accommodates a certain level of uncertainty for crisis-management. It is simple really:  if people, as stakeholders, have more time to plan their projects and are given a tentative timeline, (vetoed by them), by which results are expected, they are more inclined  to adopt specific methods  that would  result in the successful implementation of the 'desired good'. They are also more likely to have a 'Plan B' for extenuating circumstances that could have a negative impact on their projects.




What should be avoided, especially during change programmes - and Management often makes this mistake - is a declaration that X programme would begin at Y period and end at Z point, without proper consultation with, and/or consensus of the stakeholders most affected by the change. Timing is everything and without a mutually-acceptable timeline, both Management and employees may experience, (albeit in varying degrees), some frustrations over a failed initiative.



Let us assume that thus far, four of the six components comprising the communications strategy, (the 'What', 'Why', 'Who' and 'How'), have worked in harmony, one often fluidly leading to the next. Without an efficient "When/How Long" however, the initiative could fall apart at the seams. Let us explore this point in detail during a much-applauded organisational initiative.





 

The "When/How Long" during an internal organisational initiative 











For example, the new Management may decide, following a merger with a smaller company, that all staff, senior executives included, should attend a compulsory course on managing conflict and building stronger relationships, (the 'What').




It gives the reason for this course as being necessary in order to hopefully tap into the benefits of  the two (distinctly) different corporate cultures and to build a cohesive unit across board, thereby increasing efficiency levels, (the 'Why').




It also explains that the course would be handled by external consultants, so as to promote transparency and objectivity, (the 'Who').




It then lists the process and methodologies via which the course would be administered i.e. via different sessions tailored to job designations and/or seniority levels, using the latest audio-visuals tools, interactive devices and role-play exercises,  (the 'How').




In such a scenario, what would be perceived as important, in order to 'tie in' the initiative, would be the most convenient period, (the "When"), for the course to take place. For example, employees during the critical phases of their individual projects, would consider the course as 'frivolous' at best, when compared to the more serious matter of reducing costs to increase profitability or completing  projects which have a direct impact on the organisation's operations. Nevertheless, employees may understand, and may even condone, an inconvenient date for the commencement of the conflict-resolution course if convincing explanations are given.




However, if the course is perceived to be 'long-winded' or if it 'drags on' for an extended period, (the "How Long"), not only would its worth be diminished but staff would begin to display a disinterest in the course. Some may skip sessions because they view it as a waste of their valuable time. Others may choose to stop attending altogether and may go further as to lodge complaints to Management, citing practical reasons why the course should be discontinued. Widespread dissatisfaction may lead Management to acquiesce to the demands, thereby halting what initially was a much-applauded  venture with  the potential of improving co-worker  relationships, promoting organisational citizenship behaviours and (by extension), increasing operational effectiveness. (Organisational citizenship behaviour, a well-known theme in organisational behavioural science literature, which has been empirically linked to higher productivity, was introduced in this post).




Thus the "How Long"  is as vital to the success of the initiative as the "When". For maximum impact, both units should be planned together in order to work as a single component.





Conclusion



As we have deduced from the given scenario, this component, when utilised properly,  helps to 'tie in' the initiative as it works seamlessly with the other components. On the other hand, when not given adequate consideration, it causes attitudinal issues such as lack of motivation and disinterest in a programme, thereby rendering it ineffective.




Inherent in this component as earlier stated is the issue of time management. Time management and prioritisation skills should be encouraged, deliberately developed and nurtured in the workplace. This is because in today's fast-paced era,  it is often the norm, rather than the exception, that multi-tasking is an essential aspect of professional duties.



The "When/How Long" component also leads to the 'what-if-something-goes-wrong' discussions, in other words, the "Crisis-Mode Plan", which is the  final component in the communications strategy.










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N.B- Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net. Animation courtesy of Wikimedia Commons