Dealing with a corporate crisis requires a pre-prepared strategy and a four-point implementation plan, suggest Beth Boswell and Yusuf Hatia in a co-authored article
It has always been baffling that large corporations take insurance out on their building, insurance out on their employees but when it comes to their reputation, that is where the insurance stops. Admittedly, it’s not as simple as signing a piece of paper.
Although in a crisis, a time of ultimate stress on a company, understanding NGOs and government plus having links to them is the best insurance for quickly managing a problem and bouncing back.
The paradox with crisis communications is that it actually starts before a crisis happens. One straightforward way to approach a crisis is to follow the 4 C’s – cooperation, containment, control and cauterise.
Cooperation begins now. Before the crisis. Meeting with government officials and NGOs to establish a rapport is critical. Learning each other’s agenda and pressure points is essential.
Keeping a Google Alert going for policy changes or publicly advocated stands adds to a knowledge base that can be used later. Plus, hiring an intern to map key stakeholders and their changing views is a cost effective way to have some information quickly available.
Within a company, crisis cooperation pre-problem is also important. It can be as simple as holding a half hour brainstorm with some executives regarding potential crisis areas. This wakes them up to reputation vulnerability. Then take this information and incorporate it into a crisis communications manual. The crisis manual should contain steps to help with the remaining 3 Cs.
Contain the crisis once it hits. In Asia, too many companies first disavow the problem and then scramble to get out of the spotlight. The challenge with a spotlight is that it follows you. An example is the melamine scare of over a year ago. Rather than run, it is more effective to contain the crisis by quickly telling the truth. Get your first comment out within 30 minutes and then continue to gather as many facts as possible.
Don’t be scared to say “I don’t know but I’ll find out”. Then, make sure to find out. And tell people what was found.
However companies often only contain the crisis by telling the story to the media or putting it online. The online community and media will seek other sources like government and NGOs and labour unions. These sources are sought to provide judgment, to mete out a sentence through policy changes and finger pointing.
At this stage, a company needs to make two calls. The first is a judgment call. Which stakeholders may use company contact as another way to gain public attention and express their view? Which stakeholders will need the information the company has? For example, a patient association may have members affected by a drug recall. They need the information and contact.
The second call is physical. If it’s an email, be careful because an email can end up on a social network somewhere. The key stakeholder phone call or email explains the company’s action steps, its position and gives government and NGOs another side of the story. It also gives the company a sense of what these stakeholders might feel they have to say publicly.
Control only comes when lines of communications are established and most of the facts are known. Although each crisis is different, there is a natural progression. The crisis occurs, key stakeholders and the public are informed, facts are gathered until there is no more, government or NGOs or the company indicate a solution. Sometimes the solution comes via a government enquiry or a court case or bankruptcy.
In this crisis phase, a routine method of communicating with all stakeholders should be running. The crisis team is meeting regularly and speaking to all stakeholders routinely. A base message is in use and slowly all the facts are being filled in. The one or two people who established a cooperative relationship with the NGOs and government are continually communicating with their contacts.
Eventually all the facts are out, action steps have been taken and the crisis wound is cauterised. This is the point where the crisis key messages and facts no longer change. It’s when the government and NGOs believe the company has done everything possible to answer the problem and ensure it doesn’t happen again. In the energy business, it’s when the depot fire is out and new safety measures are in place.
In the FMCG business, it can be when new packaging or quality measures occur and people feel secure again.
The easiest thing to do in this phase is forget. Instead, it’s important to reconnect with the NGOs and government stakeholders. Fill them in on next steps and procedures in place. By doing this, a company rebuilds trust.
It is also re-insuring itself in case the unexpected, happens again.
About the authours:
This article was co-authored by Yusuf Hatia, general manager, Fleishman-Hillard Mumbai. Having worked in Europe, the Middle East and now India, Yusuf has helped governments and companies manage a range of crises from employee disputes to full scale agitations and industrial action. Yusuf as also worked with government departments in the UK and Middle East and is currently involved in projects with clients that include crisis planning in India.
Beth Boswell, managing director of reputation management, Asia Pacific, Fleishman-Hillard. A seasoned issues management specialist, she has worked with corporations handling crises in countries as varied as Indonesia, the US, Canada and China. She started her career in government.