Elisabeth Lewis Jones, director of Liquid Public Relations, looks at the art of crisis management
It’s an incredible statistic but today more than 80 per cent of senior executives in Europe expect to handle a major crisis during their career.
With the dominance of our 24/7 media and the immediacy of the internet, stories both good and bad, can be sent around the world in seconds. This thirst for news, coupled with a demand, by an increasingly sophisticated public, for organisations to be seen to be acting responsibly, has meant that companies and individuals need to be transparent in their approach and prepare properly for a crisis situation.
This preparation ranges from not just a planning manual or a table top exercise but to the careful management of an organisation’s image and reputation long before a crisis ever takes place.
How the media and stakeholders then treat a crisis depends not just on the handling of the situation but by the external image and reputation of an organisation in the first place.
Much research has been done in to why organisations, in today’s health and safety conscious environment and with complex communication procedures, suffer a crisis.
Corporate culture is one of the main factors.
When we think of a landmark crisis – the good (British Midland), the bad (Ratners) and the ugly (the Paddington rail crash) – it is widely believed that they were most powerfully defined by the culture of the organisations concerned and the attitude of senior managers within them.
Yet there is growing evidence that companies and individuals can survive a crisis and bounce back from it bigger and better than before.
Once the initial aftermath has happened, managers need to carefully plan how they make use of a crisis situation and look for ways in which positive outcomes and visible improvements can be presented. Using a simple SWOT analysis can allow managers to turn threats into opportunities and weaknesses into strengths.
In public relations we concentrate on four key areas:
Image – the public reputation of an organisation
Support – activities that support the achievements of goals and objectives but do not necessarily provide value to the organisation on their own, such as administration and customer service
Stakeholders – these are the people...the staff, customers, creditors, insurers
Value activities – the tasks that achieve the goals or objectives for an organisation, these are cash flow generators or value adding activities.
When a crisis happens one or more of these four elements may be damaged.
Imagine these four areas as four walls to a room. One of these walls is damaged and so the organisation reacts to reduce the damage and recover the wall. The ‘saggy floor’ is made secure and alternate facilities are put into place and the appropriate contingency or recovery plan to return the wall to its pre-crisis state is activated.
The ‘floor’ of the room illustrates performance – it’s obviously going to dip in the area that has been damaged. Therefore in order to ‘bounce back’ the level of the floor needs to be raised, ie performance needs to be raised. This doesn’t just happen to the area that has been damaged – the other walls also need to improve to help support the damaged wall. This increased level of performance has huge benefits to companies.
The intense efforts made during the crisis are unlikely to be sustained, but any improved focus on stakeholders and organisational image, extra effort in delivering services and support and search for innovative solutions to prevent the loss of market share may leave the organisation with a better than pre-crisis performance level.
In all this activity, the most important audience – and one companies often forget to communicate to – is the staff. A highly motivated team will work around the clock to help manage a situation, they’ll be empowered to look at new processes and procedures and they’ll be less likely to speak to the media waiting at the entrance gates.
Within our transparent world the opportunity for a crisis or a problem occurring is on the increase. The need for a positive image and company reputation has never been more important for an organisation.
Yet calling in the professionals once a crisis has happened may seem like closing the stable door once the horse has bolted. It can however help to reposition a company post a crisis, address their corporate culture, their external and internal perception and enable them to bounce from being a ‘zero’ back to being a ‘hero’ again.