Organizational crises are inherently psychological, social, political, technological, and/or structural phenomena.1 Companies face enormous consequences if a crisis situation or incident negatively impacts brand reputation. During a crisis, communication is often one of the most persistent liabilities, potentially exposing weaknesses in company policy, operations, intentions, and/or financial foundations. It relays a situation’s defining moments, actions, perceptions, and forecasted intentions. However, communication also holds the key to situational reconciliation and financial resolve, or reputational anguish.
The act of planning, preparation, and practice of a Crisis Management Plan (CMP) grants companies the ability to effectively respond to defining situational crises. The ability to diversely communicate information within a context understandable to responders, stakeholder, employees, and the public allows companies to successfully navigate through a crisis, potentially minimizing the effects of the situation.
Companies must have mechanisms in place to counteract potential risks, operational threats and company extinction. There are a multitude of crisis communication and response details, variables, and eventualities that must be planned for and considered. Whether your company is a small regional facility or an extensive international network of operations, designing a comprehensive and effective CMP before a crisis occurs is essential to the continued success of your enterprise.
The CMP should establish a strategic framework with checklists and response criteria that will guide the communications decision-making process to allow for an effective response to a crisis. These checklists should include activation criteria and responses for any situation involving a threat to people, property, the environment, or operations. A mishandled crisis or incident may result in damage to the company's reputation and/or financial well being.
A CMP should:
- Identify all potential threats to “business as usual” operations. This can range from incidents requiring an emergency response to human resource controversies.
- Determine what your position or viewpoint will be on potential issues.
- Take preventive measures to proactively deter negative perceptions. This includes generating effective response procedures and recovery processes for a variety of potential threats.
Consider preparing a plan for responding to all internal and external aspects of the crisis. This may include identifying and communicating with all stakeholders that may be affected by each crisis situation. Maintaining consistency through standardized positions and responsibilities enable clear, effective, and efficient crisis management.
With instant accessibility, information (whether true or false) can become viral within minutes. Because of this potential, companies must be prepared with the proper communication tools, a means for situational awareness, and potential responses to react quickly, yet effectively. Miscommunication or withholding information can exacerbate the initial crisis and increase negative impacts of the situation. If accurate information cannot be verified, companies should not speculate in their communications. Statements should include anticipated time of communications and method of verification.
It is apparent that with the popularity and accessibility of social media, the role of conventional media is changing. However, John Barr, author of Trainwrecks: How Corporate Reputations Collapse and Managements Try to Rebuild Them said, “At the end of the day, a story told by traditional media – especially the respected media like The Globe and Mail, New York Times and Wall Street Journal – carries more weight than social media”. The argument of the weight of “traditional media” seems to be evolving. The fast paced world of 24/7 news often leaves the traditional news outlets looking to social networks for information, even referring to posted tweets or Facebook comments.
But despite the media forum, companies’ preparedness efforts should include communications to a variety of recipients. Crisis management often highlights the communication with and amongst the public and potential consumers. However, pertinent information should be shared with multiple stakeholders, including employees, investors, contractors, and suppliers. Companies should shape messages according to each recipient, as specialized information may be required.
It is imperative for the establishment and training of a crisis management team. The team should be prepared to follow the established plan and pertinent guidelines, communicate company positions, and relay ongoing activities related to the incident. Proactive efforts, honesty, empathy, and preparedness will assist in maintaining company viability and reputation.
A well-rehearsed and regularly updated CMP offers the best chance for company viability in the aftermath of a crisis. Since public perception plays an enormous role in the consequences resulting from a crisis, establishing a well trained team with knowledge of predetermined processes and assigned responsibilities will allow a company the means to respond to the situation, and control assumptions and rumors.
Social media, both incoming and outgoing, can be targeted during a crisis. While these powerful channels can be a source of falsehoods and negative comments, this communication method, if used effectively, can be positive on a global scale. The crisis management team should be trained in social media, with an understanding of how to reach targeted audiences and acceptable content of statements.
A variety of crisis management exercises should conducted as part of response training. If the CMP is activated in an exercise or in an actual event, the results should be reviewed to determine if adjustments are necessary. CMPs need to be continually reviewed, tested, and revised so that they are applicable to current risks and threats. However, no matter how well designed a CMP might be, personnel must be trained to effectively enact appropriate responses.
1. Academy of Management Review: Reframing Crisis Management, Christine M. Pearson and Judith A. Clair, 23(1) (1998): 59–76.
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