The Stakes in Today’s Crisis Management Are Life ThreateningThe Cline Group | Tuesday, September 7th, 2010 | No Comments »
If you haven’t already noticed, crises of national and global scopes are being reported by mainstream media and tweeted and blogged on an almost daily basis these days. The crises are being generated by once highly respected brands, such as Toyota and Johnson & Johnson, and the shelf life of the coverage is now weeks and months, instead of days. Even worse, in terms of consequences, the crisis bar has been raised into the stratosphere.
It is an understatement to say that the nature of crisis management and communication has changed. It has, in fact, evolved into a green-eyed monster whose stakes go way beyond bad publicity and temporary loss of public trust or reputation. Today, a crisis of any kind can be life-threatening.
Remember the Exxon Valdez? As costly as that oil spill was, and as bad as the media coverage became, it was a walk in the park compared to what is going on today. The current BP crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime example. Within days of the collapse of BP’s oil rig, there were calls for Congressional investigations and criminal charges to be filed against the company’s executives. Social media channels were full of demands that the CEO and other BP officials go to jail. Also within days, lawsuits were filed in the deaths of the 11 rig workers, not to mention hefty financial claims being filed by everyone in the Gulf States from fishermen to shop owners. At present, BP is faced with local government demands that it pay for lost tourism in the area.
To a much greater degree than in the past, the BP crisis and others involving large corporations or industries (i.e., egg and meat producers) have become highly politicized. Whether reasonable or even logical or not, it can be expected that any future crisis with a fairly high degree of public impact of any kind will suffer the same fate.
One result of politicizing is that Washington administrations, local legislators and government officials all feel pressured to talk or act tough to assuage public anger, which in turn, they have a hand in fomenting. A case in point, recent recalls of pharmaceuticals (Johnson & Johnson) and food (eggs and hamburger), have prompted FDA officials to state that they are serious about criminally prosecuting corporate executives in companies where recalls have been caused by safety violations. Fines imposed by government agencies also reach higher and higher levels.
Another result is that every move made and every word spoken by the crisis-beleaguered company is scrutinized by one political entity or another. In BP’s case, a Congressional Committee is now demanding that the oil company disclose how much money it has spent on advertising since the spill. The obvious attempt is to negatively link the advertising expenditure to money needed to reimburse people and businesses for their losses. While legally Congress cannot currently restrict advertising in a crisis, at worst someone may try to get legislation passed that would. At best, it raises a public relations issue that might seriously hinder or discourage future crisis communication attempts.
It has been suggested that in today’s political and social media communication climates, it may be impossible for any organization to survive, let along successfully manage a crisis of any major magnitude. That suggestion is true only to the degree that a company or non-profit is unprepared to meet the challenges of a full-blown crisis. My philosophy is fore-warned is fore-armed. Understanding the new communication climate, as well as the political, economic and social consequences of different crises is one part of winning the battle. Comprehensive, strategic crisis communication planning, along with regular training and testing, are the critical remaining parts.
If crisis planning is done thoroughly and correctly, it can help identify key vulnerabilities that might be avoided in the first place. Beyond that, the planning process helps take away the guess work, the spur-of-the-moment decision making, and the last-minute rankling over how to proceed. Planning helps answer who, what, where, when and how. It also provides an assessment of what resources are realistically needed to deal with situations at varying levels of severity.
Media training of spokespersons, along with drills and tabletop exercises, held at least annually, test the adequacy of the crisis plan, and the familiarity of responsible staff members with the plan’s procedures and their own roles and responsibilities.
Finally, every organization needs a business continuity plan that identifies core operations, determines how to maintain those operations during a crisis, and provides strategies for recovery after a crisis.
Today’s high stakes in crisis management and communication demand an even higher level of planning, preparation and training.