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 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.
You may recall that in this post of March 2012, I 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