Crisis Management as a strategic process

Crisis Management as a strategic process

Understanding how crises start, unfold and affect your organization is crucial in today’s digital world. This guide will equip you with the tools you need to control threats to your organization’s public standing.

By Liam B. Twomey
January 22, 2018

Artwork by Devon Marinac

Every organization faces potential threats to their reputation, while some are more susceptible than others they all share this trait. Although a crisis can develop in a series of ways, allow me to outline the most predictable pattern.

1. An incident has occurred and a person or some people are upset. They believe you are responsible.

2. These people further spread their dissatisfaction by word of mouth. The reputation of your organization is now affected.

3. The incensed persons make their grievance known on social media. The issue spreads on social media and makes more impressions on the public.

4. News outlets notice the crisis and it is reported through online, print, radio and/or broadcast channels making thousands, maybe millions of impressions.

5. There are protests and boycotts against your organization and your operating capacity is severely hindered, maybe permanently.

By nature, a crisis is not predictable therefore it may not follow this cookie-cutter model. The emergency may begin at any stage, or it might develop so quickly that you do not even notice some stages have already passed. However, this model gives you a little insight as to how a disaster can develop. The goal of the Crisis Management Strategy is to quell the issue before it progresses further. Please note that in this article when I refer to an issue or crisis, I am referring to the public’s reaction to a problem, not the problem which is distressing people itself.

Preparedness is imperative to an effective Crisis Management Strategy. If you can anticipate and stop a small issue at the source before it reaches either word of mouth or social media, then you have already won a significant battle. This is the smallest, simplest level of Crisis Management. Preparedness entails mapping every possible issue, how you can prevent and/or mitigate these issues and how to respond if your prevention efforts fail. Try to develop some procedures to counter customer dissatisfaction. For example, a friend of mine manages a café. Rarely, but often enough orders are forgotten. When the barista forgets a customer’s order, they will offer the customer a voucher for a free drink after serving them. I also know an HVAC company which regularly has delays in service. If a customer waits longer than the projected time, then the company will offer a discount upon completion of the work.

People are your best resource in the preparedness stage. Consult with all your employees, ask them what kind of issues they see affecting the organization’s reputation. Keep channels of communication open with the public so that they can alert you of any outstanding issues. These channels can include phone lines, online forms or suggestion boxes onsite. Encourage your employees to use these as well, remember that the actions and interactions of your employees can result in a crisis. Ask allies in your industry what kinds of problems they encounter. Brainstorm with various teams to envision any problem that could possibly happen. How it would progress and how you would respond. An excellent way to segment issues is to look at all the working components of your organization and how they could present a problem. Your employees, contracted services, input materials, infrastructure and final product/service can all be compromised in their own ways. Run through your plans a few times with all those involved so that all parts are in working order. Another good practice is to rank all your potential problems by two variables, impact and frequency. If an issue can have disastrous potential effects, it would be high impact. If there is a high probability of an issue arising it holds high frequency. Despite your best efforts, incidents may go unnoticed or you might have not developed a plan for them. This is why we have a monitoring stage.

Being aware of an issue before it progresses into a major problem is a crucial part of proactive Crisis Management. Social media is your best tool for awareness. Constantly monitor social media platforms for anything that could signal a problem for your company. It is a wise idea to invest in some social media listening tools such as Hootsuite Insights. Keep a close eye on online communities and influencers relevant to your industry. Have a policy for different types of posts and how you should respond/comment. I really like this flowchart Hubspot created. I think it outlines some excellent paths to follow regarding social media responses. You should have a series of similar flowcharts outlined in your preparedness plans modified to your organization and the various issues you may face. Please note that you may also get a lot of calls and emails in response to an incident. Your phone and email responses should follow these flowcharts.

While I stress social media listening as the central theme to your monitoring efforts, there are a series of different ways to stay on top of the game. From my own personal experience, one should regularly read community specific subreddits. I have seen minor indicators of a crisis on Reddit that have later fomented into full-blown, media-wide PR disasters. Stay in tune with traditional media as well. Stories from major news outlets may not mention you directly, but you may be impacted. News stories may also herald new trends that pose problems for your organization. and Infomart are both excellent resources for monitoring established media outlets. If enough dissatisfied people are taking to social media, emailing you or calling you, I advise you to respond with a public statement.

Public statement

When the situation necessitates the release of a public statement it can legitimately be called a crisis. Your statement should be no longer than 500 words. Make it succinct, direct, and focused clearly on the crisis at hand. Design a few key messages and focus your statement around them. An important element of the statement are your corrective actions. Corrective actions are the steps you take to resolve the current problem and/or ensure that it does not recur. These can include promising greater due diligence in quality control, committing to more transparency within the organization or more. Despite their importance to a strategy, I cannot express much further on corrective actions as each crisis calls for its own tactics. If you do not have any solutions available, it is acceptable to say that you are working on them. If there are no restorative solutions in sight you can donate a large sum to a charity related to the crisis or your industry.

The following is a good framework for your statement

1. Denote that you are aware of the crisis and understand why people are upset. You do not necessarily need to accept full blame for the problem at hand, but conveying a sense of empathy to those affected is crucial.

2. A brief description of the crisis. Mostly, people want to hear a brief explanation of the problem. You need to give the public and your stakeholders the who, what, where, when and why of the crisis.

3. Describe your corrective actions. Explain what measures you are taking to rectify the situation and ensure this problem does not happen again.

You will want to use all avenues available to proliferate your statement. This will include your website and all social media platforms. Some organizations use dark sites, these are private pages on your site that can be activated and made public when the crisis arises. Dark sites can be part of your preparedness plans. Ask your allies and if possible, influencers in the industry to share this content.  If you feel it is necessary, you can also host a video detailing the key messages in the statement. Maintain your monitoring efforts after releasing the statement. Follow the social media conversations surrounding your statement and respond to them to provide any clarification. The calls and emails you will be getting should also give you some idea of what kind of impact your statement has had. Try to pre-emptively imagine some of the questions people will have. What kind of criticisms may they have and how can you counter them? These practices will come in handy if the crisis progresses further.

News outlets
Depending on your crisis, news outlets may want to report on the story or you may want to contact news outlets yourself to disseminate your key messages. Established media sources usually try to remain impartial and will often try to expose multiple sides of an issue, therefore they can be a good resource. Reframe your statement as a press release and send it to media outlets. For advice on how to write and proliferate a press release please read this page. After receiving the press release they may want to meet with you for a more in-depth understanding of the situation and your corrective actions. Personal interviews can be conducted if just one or two reporters want to meet with you. Please click here for tips on managing a personal interview. If multiple news outlets want to speak with you, you may need to conduct a press conference. For more information on how to hold a press conference, please view this document.

Ensure that you have one spokesperson who is at the head of the crisis for the interviews and press conferences. This will impart a sense of accountability on the organization, that someone is in charge and that the matter is being taken seriously. The key messages and corrective actions should be central to the interviews and/or press conference. Recall the questions people had about your statement for the interview and Q & A portion of the conference. Having well-crafted answers and counterpoints at your disposal is a wise strategy. If you are conducting interviews and conferences you will need to compile a media kit for reporters. A media kit is a small, presentable document containing the following information: contact details, your media release and some basic facts about your organization. Make the media kit available online in the form of a downloadable pdf. Be sure to read/listen/view everything after it prints and/or broadcasts to clarify any errors in reporting. You will likely receive further calls and emails. Continue to maintain your social media monitoring efforts to see the impact these news stories have had and adjust your strategy accordingly.

At this point your crisis should be reasonably contained. Ideally, your organization should be able to return to its regular operating capacity with minimal disruption. A crisis can be a learning opportunity which is why you will want to evaluate your strategy afterwards. Was the incident something you were aware of, or was it something you did not even prepare for? How did your monitoring efforts work, were there certain channels you were oblivious to? Could you have improved your statement or your corrective actions? What about your media interviews and press conference? Consult with your teams and brainstorm solutions to these flaws in your strategy. Edit your preparedness plans to reflect the wisdom this opportunity has imparted upon you and your organization.

I would like to thank you for taking the time to read this guide. Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive document, each one of these paragraphs could easily be expanded into a full book. However, I do believe it provides a reasonable insight into how to mitigate, monitor and respond to major threats to an organization’s reputation. Although formulating a Crisis Management Strategy seems like a lot of work, operating in the event of a calamity with no direction at all is significantly much harder. As a final note, please remember that while no one welcomes a crisis with open arms, it can always be an opportunity to learn, grow and strengthen the vulnerable points of your organization.