Crisis situations can occur in any business at any time and its affects has the potential to be devastating to the people involved and the business itself.
Organisations providing products and services with the likelihood to cause harm or injury to people if things go wrong must also make sure that in addition to their comprehensive risk management systems they include in their marketing strategy a robust crisis communications plan.
This year alone we have seen a catalogue of crisis management incidents that have occurred across industries, highlighting the need for effective strategic management of reputation. From the recall and then the removal of the faulty Samsung Note 7 device, the news reports of a fire at a care home for old people in Newport where all residents had to be evacuated, to the court ruling last month on Merlin Entertainment, the owners and operators of Alton Towers who were fined £5million for health and safety failings that led to serious injuries of passengers on the Smiler rollercoaster ride in 2015.
Such incidents don’t make comfortable reading, particularly when there have been serious life changing injuries to the people involved. Instead, they raise questions for companies to do more to effectively manage and reduce risks as far as possible.
There is much that could be said about the management of risks by businesses to protect their customers and employees. However, I want to focus on the strategic management of the crisis communications plan, which in my opinion should be an integral part of the risk management system.
We would all agree that having access to relevant information during a crisis incident is crucial for all concerned, particularly those affected and their families. Companies need to act with speed and precision during such incidents to make sure that information is accurately communicated, shared and accessible.
Most companies would invest a considerable amount of time in their risk and audit committees to develop elaborate plans for managing potential risks to the business and the people they serve and employ. However, fall short in applying the same level of detail and attention to developing a crisis communications plan, often only giving thought to this at the point of a crisis event.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. Below are some helpful guidelines to consider when developing your company strategic management plans so that they include a crisis communications management component.
Things can go wrong at any time in any business and it is the responsibility of companies to think ahead to the possibility of this and develop practical risk management systems specific to their business and industry.
The risk register, contingency plan or crisis management plan as it may be called, should include clearly thought-out processes for identifying and managing all potential risks. The level of risk and its likelihood will vary for every sector, but a proven approach that could be used to get you started with identifying potential risks is scenario planning.
Scenario planning is a simple approach that will allow you to think through a range of scenarios that could happen within the business and the environment in which you operate. It will help you to identify what would constitute as a potential risk and enable you to consider what the likelihood and potential impact of the risk would be to your customers, employees and business should things go wrong.
Develop a strategy
Having identified the risks that may affect your business, the systems you use to record, assess and manage risks should be regularly reviewed and monitored. Appointing specific individuals within the company with responsibility for ensuring that the risk register or contingency plan is adhered to, kept up-to-date and consistently reviewed as part of your operational activities is good practice.
In particular, you should also make sure that the risk management system is updated with every new development or change within the business, so that it can include details of any new risks and flag up potential issues that require further investigation and action.
From your scenario planning exercise you should be able to use the information to help you develop your crisis communications strategy. Consideration should be given to the actions you will take to reduce risk and how you will address any concerns that may be raised about particular high risks. Your crisis management strategy should also plan for the level of support and assistance that may be required by individuals potentially impacted by the risk, and determine what your response would be should such events occur.
An important consideration in developing your crisis management strategy is the risk to reputation. Damage to reputation or brand in the aftermath of a crisis event may affect how the company is viewed and may also have negative consequences both in the present and in the future. Reputation touches on the entire company and should be a key consideration when planning for crisis management.
Thinking ahead will enable to you to develop appropriate communications strategies that are relevant, informative and sensitive to the situation, so that all communication is speedily provided and available across your communication channels.
It is good practice to make sure that the groundwork for managing communication activities during a crisis is done before the event of a crisis, so that you are able to act quickly and respond in a measured and considered way.
The preparation of formal statements for media activities or communication with customers, staff or families could be completed beforehand. The production of additional information and/or advice to signpost people to further support, including contact details for people to use during a crisis should be planned for, approved by all relevant parties, including lawyers and signed off in advance, as such information could be updated at a later date if required.
If you operate a business that would require the relocation of people into alternative facilities as a result of a particular crisis event, then the planning and arrangements for this should be considered in advance and a clear strategy for its management and communication put in place.
As part of your preparatory work, you should also identify those members of your executive team who will be spokespeople for the company and make sure that the wider staff team are aware of who they are and how to contact them. The advantages of forward planning is that you can also make sure that spokespeople are appropriately trained and thoroughly briefed to manage crisis events before they happen so that the crisis situation is not the first opportunity they have to handling a crisis!
The speed of the response from companies during a crisis incident is essential, therefore taking steps in advance to ensure a smooth process of managing the crisis and effectively communicating with your stakeholders at each stage of the process should be a priority that is planned for and effectively managed.
Edna Petzen @LyndenConsult is the director and consultant at Lynden Consulting, a strategic management, marketing and communications company helping organisations develop marketing strategy, build and protect their brand, improve performance and achieve communication excellence. Find out more