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When there’s a crisis ... don’t make it worse

Henry Ford said history was bunk. Maybe he was just lucky and didn’t need to learn from the experience of others. But few executives can dismiss history quite so bluntly: especially the history of crisis management. Think of Union Carbide and Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez, Andersen’s Enron and WorldCom problems in 2002.

Worldcom Exxon Union Carbide Enron

The first lesson is, crises really do happen. The second is, when you’re in a hole, don’t keep digging. In other words, don’t botch your response.

Despite the evidence of history, many companies are unprepared for a crisis, do not have plans or procedures in place or have inadequate means to put existing plans into action. A CEO can be all too easily persuaded that financial resources should be spent on more pressing issues, not hypothetical details or that speaking to the media - crisis or no crisis - is simply a matter of common sense.

Today’s media communications are almost instantaneous. Radio, TV and internet can flash news globally in seconds. 24 hour news channels can detail every small movement in a story hour after hour. In such a world, it is no longer a luxury to know how to manage communications in a crisis. It is essential.

Look at the stark alternatives: you can either carefully put the company’s side of the story, take control, look concerned, authoritative and open or you can leave it to chance, busk your public appearances, be unprepared and appear to stonewall or look inept or unhelpful as you languish under the lights of the TV cameras and photographers’ flashbulbs.

Like it or not, you will be under public scrutiny in a crisis. At such a time, there are some basic communication needs. Internally, you must be able to rapidly assemble a team to manage and co-ordinate responses. You will need a single figure-head to BE the company. You will need a dedicated team to handle media, internal, government and other relevant stakeholders’ enquiries. Resources need to be immediately available, not locked behind red tape. That may mean a Crisis Centre stocked with cash, bunk beds, computers, TV/radio monitoring equipment and all the contact details needed to reach key people who may be involved.

In such situations you are seeking to avoid escalating a crisis by the way you respond to it. Media appearances and public reactions to them will be crucial to your company’s chances of emerging from the episode with its reputation in tact and with the support of shareholders and customers.

Even the largest corporations can come unstuck. When the Exxon Valdez spilled 240,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, it was bad news. As poor weather and a slow response to contain the pollution made the environmental situation worse, public criticism piled up against Exxon. Yet for a week the chairman did not appear on TV. When he did, it was live and he showed a lack of knowledge about the clean-up plans. It was a media disaster. Exxon was perceived to be arrogant. In an industry that has reason to be sensitive to environmental concerns they appeared indifferent. The damage to Exxon’s reputation was significant. The hole just got bigger.

The broad lessons from other people’s disasters are clear. Strong planning is only of use if it is followed by rapid and skilful implementation. Historical disasters are only the starting point to understanding the need for crisis communication planning. Taking time to scan the horizon for potential problems in the future, however absurd, is a sensible next step. Having identified what problems there may be, deciding on how you might need to respond and embedding a crisis plan to deal with it into your organisation is vital. Even then, making sure you regularly rehearse procedures is as close as you are going to get to the real thing.

Lastly, a cautionary tale. As a broadcaster in the UK, I was involved in regular rehearsals for the death of major members of the British royal family. Time and again we battled our way through improvised scenarios. Then one day it happened for real. Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. She was the only Royal we had not considered in our doom-laden scenarios. Nor had we thought about such a death occurring in a foreign country. But we had practised the drill for responding to tragic news. It wasn’t a comfortable ride for anyone involved, but when it came to be played for real, we got by. It was fast, accurate, had the right tone. Viewers watched in their millions. It could have been a lot worse. It wasn’t. It was, all things considered, a success in that we didn’t fail.

Article by Rod Macrae, Macrae Media & Communication

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