Crisis management planning proves its worth in testing times

July 1, 2014 by Alex Johnson

Many factors determine the magnitude of a crisis and therefore the scale of the crisis communication response required of an organisation. The most important of all is the extent to which human life has been affected.

This is one of the reasons why the BP Gulf oil spill was such a major crisis management challenge: many people lost their livelihoods; worse, some lost their lives.

Crisis management training
 So, if your organisation is vulnerable to a crisis which could harm people’s lives, you must view crisis management planning and crisis management training as top priorities. You have a duty of care to those who may be affected by an incident; you have a responsibility to your stakeholders (not least your employees) to be prepared to protect your reputation.

Time spent scenario planning ahead of an incident enables you to be responsive, effective and sensitive in your crisis communications.

Here are three pieces of advice I would offer organisations to begin their crisis management planning:

1) Think the unthinkable (and if you can’t do that, at least think the thinkable)

 If you are an airline, despite your best efforts, one day an aircraft may crash. If you are a pharmaceutical company, despite rigorous testing, one day a patient may die as a result of one of your medicines.

Responsible organisations do everything in their power to prevent a crisis.  But they also invest time and effort in thorough crisis management planning to figure out exactly what they would do if the worst should happen.

So, conceiving your worst nightmares through a reputational risk assessment and engaging in scenario planning is the least you can do to ensure you are ready to look after those affected by a possible crisis, as well as protecting your reputation.

2) Prepare your online crisis communication channels for bad news

 The first places that most people look for information following an incident are an organisation’s website and its Twitter feed. In times of crisis, your online channels must quickly communicate the right messages with the right tone of voice.

This was an area Malaysian Airlines got right after MH370 disappeared. They replaced their website with a ‘dark site’. Designed specifically for crisis circumstances these sites have little or no imagery, allowing the response to the incident to be the focus.

It’s important to have dark sites in place before an incident strikes so they can be activated at the flick of a switch.

Include a review of your online channels as an early step in your crisis management plan to reduce the risk of any existing words or visuals being deemed inappropriate. This is important as crisis management history is littered with examples of organisations who forgot to take down photos of happy, smiling customers from their homepage, continued to run a now insensitive Facebook competition or failed to change inappropriate wording. For example, at the same time as its lasagnes were being removed from shelves during the early stages of the horsemeat scandal, Findus’s website continued to proclaim it used “only the best ingredients”.

3) Match your words to the severity of the incident

 In hugely emotive and sensitive situations, one badly chosen word can mean the difference between being perceived as an empathetic organisation, and one that is failing to understand or acknowledge the severity of the situation.

In the recent baby hospital feed incident  ITH Pharma’s first external statement said that the company was “saddened” at the death of a baby.  Whist few could imagine that the company and its executives felt anything other than deep sorrow, ‘saddened’ sounded like an inadequate emotion for the loss of a young child.  The word was featured prominently across media coverage and was an area of criticism from some commentators.

In situations such as these, you have one chance to get it right and it is important to use words that appropriately convey the gravity of the situation.  Again, crisis management planning and training in advance of an incident will help organisations to make the right communication decisions under pressure.

Crisis management planning
Henry Kissinger once said: ‘There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full’.

In reality, you can almost guarantee that a crisis will strike at the least opportune moment. And if your crisis impacts people’s lives, you and your stakeholders will be eternally grateful that you spent time planning your response ahead of the incident.

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