Staying in command of a crisis scenario

 The art of issues management involves being alert to your marketplace and prepared for the crisis when it hits, says GSK’s regional government relations director, Janice Armstrong  

What are the essential ingredients for managing an issue or a crisis from a corporate affairs perspective?

There are three key elements: build solid relationships, be transparent and deliver pro-active management. But even before you get to that point it is important to engage in issue sensing. I don’t think enough practitioners or organizations take time to do this.

Often before an issue becomes a crisis it has been a smaller issue, you hear a low hum out there in the marketplace, from your customers, clients or the social media. They are highlighting a problem which could build up and up towards a bigger issue.

If you can sense those issues, realizing that they have the potential to explode, then you have an opportunity to get out in front of it and manage it more pro-actively.

And if you can do the work to build relationships with your stakeholders before there is a crisis or an issue then that is going to stand you in good stead. Building trust and credibility by meeting with stakeholders in advance when there is no problem means you can manage an issue more effectively when it arises.

What should companies do to prepare for a crisis or issue?

Having a clear crisis management process is important for any company. The process has to be very simple. The crisis management team may be made up of multiple functions across different geographies but there should be one person responsible for leading it and driving the process through the company. It is also important to make sure that the crisis management process is part of the orientation for new employees.

All staff needs to understand what to do when a crisis strikes and new employees can be overlooked in companies which have a large employee base or have high staff turnover. This approach should be ingrained into a company and into the process of orientation for new employees.

Once you have a process, and someone capable leading it, it is important to make sure that you get the right people on the phone (or in the room) to establish a company position. How are we going to handle this? What are the facts? What is our message going to be? And what are our answers to questions going to be? These are the questions which have to be answered.

When you have got to this point you must make sure that these messages are well communicated and that everyone is speaking with one voice to their different stakeholders – in the case of GSK, patients, doctors, media, government and regulators. Everybody internally and externally has to give a consistent and clear message.

How should you approach the media during these periods?

Transparent and responsive – that is what you want to be. When there is a vacuum of information then all types of rumor and misinformation can rush in to fill the void. Delaying in answering media calls will only cause problems. It is important to answer them, even if all you can say is that you are aware of an issue, you are looking into it and you will get back to them with more information as soon as possible. Then do it! You should have a small number of spokespeople who are well trained. Depending on how big the issue is, and if it is a global issue, you will need to have trained spokespeople in different time zones.

How should MNCs pro-actively go out and build relationships in new markets where there are many competing voices?

You need to know who you are talking to, why you are talking to them and what is important to them. So if you are seeking to build a relationship with a government or government official you want to do your homework first. Find out about them, and what their goals are. Once you have that clearly defined assess that and think what you can do to help them meet their priority goals. Ask what your company can do in terms of expertise or products that can help them meet their goals and address those issues.

And be aware that governments are important wherever you do business, not just in large countries like China. In this region it can feel like government officials are more accessible, because in some senses industry is smaller and some countries are smaller. That is something which is a real positive for us as GA practitioners. It means we can have more access and interactions with government officials.

Are GA practitioners who operate in regulated industries more equipped to deal with government and regulatory bodies when a crisis hits?

Both of the major roles I have had are in highly regulated industries – plant biotech and pharmaceuticals. We are required by the sort of business that we do to have regular interaction with government and regulatory officials at numerous levels. This is clearly a benefit because often you have had a chance to build a good relationship with these people.

One strategy that has worked well in situations where issues were looming but not yet public was to go out proactively to these key stakeholders and inform them about the issue. It is almost like an “inoculation” strategy.

This means as a company, you have to be brave. You need to make a judgment call. Are you ready to go to your stakeholder and say “ Hey this is something that is developing, it could be an issue, and here is what we as a company know to be the facts and here are the next steps we are going to take.’ Sometimes this can be a very effective strategy.

And, finally, why do companies get it wrong? Why do they close-in and shut-down when a crisis hits?

It is a natural human instinct to withdraw or be defensive. But in so many corporate scenarios this natural instinct is exactly the wrong thing to do. The more transparent and open you can be, and the more frequent you can communicate, showing that you are concerned and empathetic, the more positive it will be for your company.

Janice Armstrong is the Regional Director for Government Affairs in Asia Pacific for Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK). She was in conversation with Craig Hoy, Executive Director of  PublicAffairsAsia

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