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Justin Saia

By Justin Saia

Crisis Planning During Turbulent Times

I recently participated in a robust panel discussion on crisis management at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, where the students had just wrapped up a five-day simulated business crisis relating to a fictitious national restaurant chain dealing with an outbreak of E.coli. Below are some musings from our conversation.

It is a truth that painstaking attention can be devoted to uncovering root causes that give rise to crisis scenarios. Businesses would be smart to take steps to proactively deal with and effectively prevent problems before they occur. However, you can prepare, plan, and strategise all you want, but crises can and will happen. Sure, it would be great if we could take preemptive steps in all cases to prevent them entirely in the first place, but that’s not real life. That’s a short-sighted view. In an increasingly complex and connected global marketplace, crises are happening on a larger scale and playing out in a very public way due to the speed of information flow across our planet and the sheer complexity of challenges businesses are faced with today. Rest assured, when something goes wrong in your business, the world will know soon enough.

How your organization responds when the red phone lights up at 3 a.m. and retools and emerges from a crisis are telling signs about the future sustainability of your business.

What are some key lessons or takeaway from crisis response?

A local focus should be a priority. Take a stakeholder-centric view. You must restore and repair credibility in the communities where your business operates and the places your employees call home before focusing outward. Hiring or utilising local people to support your organisation during times of crisis can provide valuable perspective as to the local challenges and issues people in impacted communities are dealing with each day. Armed with empathy for impacted stakeholders, your company will be better prepared to respond in measure.

People with local context and local relationships can help your company avoid pitfalls, navigate local politics, and repair broken relationships with dejected stakeholders. Local people can give your business a much needed boost of instant credibility.

Additionally, during times of crisis, there is almost certain to be an information vacuum, which may exacerbate and increase the severity of a crisis and may induce rumour and gossip. For this reason, it is imperative that you disseminate accurate information in a timely manner to key stakeholder groups. Inform your stakeholders of what is taking place and how you are managing the evolving situation. This will help set the tone early and give you more control of the narrative.

During my time at BP America during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we were challenged to get reporters off the beach and out to the site of the Macondo well. It was easy for reporters to stand on the beach and fantasise about some amorphous blob of oil engulfing everything in its path, however, this fiction was completely removed from any sense of reality. We were quick to procure a fleet of Sikorsky S-76 helicopters, EADS HC-144 Ocean Sentry search and rescue airplanes, and a wide array of water vessels in an attempt to take reporters out to the site of the ruptured well so they could see and report exactly what was unfolding. Many of the reporters I encountered on these trips remarked that conditions were much less severe than they had imagined from the confines of the shoreline, where they were previously reporting from.

What are the keys to crisis planning from your perspective?

Effective crisis planning involves proactivity around the development of a comprehensive crisis plan and regular and repeated crisis training of communicators, executives, and other essential support staff.  When a crisis strikes your organisation, the corporate communications team should not find itself riding out alone to face down the challenge. The key to enduring and overcoming a crisis is unity behind a common message and cooperation across the entire organisation. It is important to recognise that every corporate function has a critical role to play and efforts to develop a crisis response plan should incorporate feedback and planning elements from a broad range of actors across your organisation (e.g. security, facilities, government affairs, operations, finance, communications, marketing).

When crisis scenario planning begins, think BIG. As hard as it might be to imagine, think about the worst possible catastrophe that could befall your business. Whatever comes to mind, double down and think again. This is your starting point for developing your crisis plan. Even the most informed crisis plans can’t possibly predict the unimaginable, but the narrower the gap between the theoretical and the practical, the faster your organisation can react and recover from a crisis situation.

You’re never going to be able to fully predict or even prepare for the size and scale of the type of crisis response we encountered at BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but dreaming big and being prepared for the unimaginable, will lessen the negative impacts on your business in the long run.

What is something often overlooked in a crisis event?

We spend a lot of time focusing on external stakeholders during a crisis – shareholders, politicians, customers, vendors, the media, etc. However, do not lose sight of often one of the most important stakeholders during a crisis – your own employees. During a crisis, employee morale is often devastated, as fear and confusion about the future sustainability of the business persist. Rumours run rampant. Employees will likely face down hostility from their friends, families, and professional colleagues and local communities can be vicious. Be honest with employees who will likely experience feelings of embarrassment and shame. Don’t let employees find out about a corporate crisis from the company’s response on TV broadcasts or when the newspaper hits the driveway the next morning. Employees are your best brand ambassadors and they are on the front lines every day interacting with your current and prospective customers. You owe it to them and your business to equip them with basic messaging and an understanding about what has transpired, your plans to remedy the situation, and future repercussions of what has unfolded. Strong employee morale during a crisis can help businesses remain resilient in the face of great corporate adversity.

If you could give one piece of advice to our students about crisis management—what would it be?

Don’t feel pressured to respond instantly the moment a crisis strikes. Maintain calm and take the necessary time to gather all the particular facts surrounding the issue, analyse the situation and understand the issue backwards and forwards. When the times finally comes to issue a statement or speak publicly, consider the perspective of your various stakeholder audiences and how they will be impacted. Empathise with them and personalise your message directly to them. You can be more than a cold and detached corporate lackey.

In the delivery of your message, provide just enough information to explain what’s going on and avoid getting into the weeds or delving into technical specifics. Share only what stakeholders need to know and not what you want to say. Remember, your words create legal liability. Be sure you get facts right the first time, as there are no do-overs in a crisis environment and every word out of your mouth will be parsed and measured accordingly. Be honest, don’t blame, own up to your faults and commit to making things right. These are critical imperatives in maintaining your credibility, earning back trust, and instilling confidence in stakeholder groups. Exercise patience.

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