Crisis management 2012: Are you prepared?

February 8, 2012 by Jonathan Hemus

The first few weeks of 2012 have seen a succession of businesses in crisis management mode as they fought to protect their reputations in the face of challenging events and issues.

Whilst the Costa Concordia disaster filled the news for weeks and required concerted crisis communication, RBS faced an issues management challenge over executive pay, LA Fitness grappled with a social media fuelled crisis and the issue of faulty breast implantstested the communication skills of clinicians, governments and scientists across Europe.  And these events are just the tip of the iceberg.

A crisis is by definition a critical even for an organisation, but research by Oxford Metricashows that it is not the fact of suffering a crisis that damages a business – in reality no business can eliminate the possibility of a problem- rather, what really counts is how the organisation is seen to manage the crisis: take control quickly, respond professionally, and communicate well and the organisation is likely to prosper. Federal Express, for example, have been commended for the way in which it responded to a YouTube video which threatened reputational harm.

Conversely, dither, hide or appear to be uncaring, and tough – even terminal – challenges may lie ahead.

As a result, thorough crisis preparedness is essential so that the organisation can be off the starting blocks like an Olympic sprinter.  And – just like athletics – what used to be speedy enough to win a gold medal is now far from world class.  They used to say that the first 24 hours of a crisis were crucial.  The speed and spread of crises today – largely driven by the immediacy and reach of on-line media – makes a mockery of this golden rule.  Being prepared before the crisis breaks, and being able to respond almost instantaneously allows organisations to retain control over their destiny.  HSBC demonstrated the value of this preparation when its online banking and ATMs crashed late last year: it reacted quickly with a textbook crisis communication response.

An online world has not changed key principles of reputation protection: indeed, the old lessons of crisis preparedness still apply (but more so):

Understand your areas of vulnerability
Develop and implement crisis management plans and processes
Rehearse the plan and enhance it
Train your people, especially those required to act as a spokesperson in a crisis
Monitor the landscape
Engage in pro-active reputation management
But the power of social media to both create and destroy reputations presents a new and potentially scary dynamic.   And many organisations are still grappling with how to harness online media in the face of this potentially business-critical challenge.  It’s one of the reasons why Blackberry was so slow to respond with effective crisis communication to its network outage late last year.

Failing to prepare properly leaves an organisation frighteningly vulnerable in today’s world.  If a crisis is gestating online then the organisation must have the capability to also manage it online.  Sticking to traditional media has the potential for at least three negative results.  Firstly, you may fail to reach those people most affected and concerned by the crisis – the people talking about it online.  Secondly, you lose the opportunity to engage with the online community which has the power to spread positive messages about what the organisation is doing to deal with the situation.  And finally, you may further escalate the situation by communicating bad news to people who were previously unaware that there was a problem.

The key to success is a combination of traditional reputation management insights and expertise, and the application of the latest on-line reputation management tools to get the message through.

As the start point for online reputation management, companies should take the following five steps:

Develop crisis management “dark sites” or other online hubs to respond quickly, clearly and effectively to emerging issues and incidents
Ensure that it has identified and set up the infrastructure and resource to communicate via social media such as Twitter and Facebook
Implement online media monitoring to track what is being said about them in cyberspace
Develop the capability to quickly create content – latest information, briefing papers, podcasts, blogs – for online media
Build skills and confidence by running a realistic social media exercise
The internet has the power to spark and spread a crisis: but used effectively, digital tools have enormous potential to help organisations prevent and manage them too.  Having online resources in place beforehand leaves an organisation better placed to manage any crises that the rest of 2012 throws at us.

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