What if? What now?

Knowing how to react when crisis hits is important, but learning to anticipate future emergencies in advance makes all the difference.


As the world approached the turn of the last century, businesses and governments across the globe were worried about one thing: the Millennium Bug.

As a diligent communication professional responsible for my company’s programme, I had asked my boss for a copy of our crisis management plan - imagine my surprise when I discovered there wasn’t one!

Come New Year’s Eve, I was on call, stone cold sober, dressed in my ball gown with the newly drafted crisis plan clutched tightly in my hand, waiting for the crisis that of course never came.

It was a powerful introduction to the world of crisis management and the need to be thoroughly prepared at all times for both the issues you can anticipate and the unexpected crises.

Crisis management in the mining industry Now as group head of communication for Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, crisis management – or more accurately, crisis prevention and preparedness – is part of my everyday life.

Despite the enormous strides made by the industry in general, mining by its very nature carries inherent reputational risk. You only need to consider the last five years to see the truth in this statement. In 2010, the world watched as 33 miners were rescued from the San José Mine in Chile after being trapped for 69 days: this was not just the biggest mining crisis of the year - it was also the biggest global news story for several weeks! With hundreds of reporters and camera crews camped out at the mine, the incident powerfully demonstrated that successful crisis management is as much about how well you communicate as it is about your operational response. One of the things I have observed is that a crisis often turns into a very public audit of management competence, and the consequences of a perceived failure on management’s part can be severe over the long term.

In the mining industry though, crises are not just about unexpected accidents or incidents that appear out of nowhere: long running issues also have the potential to suddenly explode into a major crisis. That was the case in the tragic events surrounding Lonmin’s Marikana mine in 2012, when a longstanding labour dispute erupted into violence and ended with the death of 44 people. Suddenly, a local industrial relations issue had become a global crisis.

We are not immune from issues or crises ourselves, and industrial relations challenges at our South African platinum mines last year tested our issues management skills to the full.

Like many industries, mining is made up of a broad range of operators, big and small, with vastly different attitudes to reputation, governance, sustainability and crisis management. As a result, the laggards can often taint the leaders. As one of the best known operators in the sector, Anglo American must be mindful of this and work tirelessly to build and protect its own brand and reputation.

In addition to these longstanding challenges, the prevalence of social media has changed the dynamics for crisis management, bringing new levels of transparency, and the potential for bad news to spread further and faster than ever before. For an industry which is not universally popular, it has also allowed critics to band together and mount campaigns more quickly and more prolifically than ever before.

Being ready to respond quickly and professionally is therefore a pre-requisite for a company like Anglo American, which depends on its relationships with stakeholders whose opinions are heavily influenced by its reputation. We need to shape the story before others do it for us.

A holistic approach

At Anglo American, anticipating crises is part of a holistic approach to reputation management. I view crisis handling as the final step in a continuum of reputation management and protection activity consisting of: brand, reputation and relationship building; risk assessment and management; pro-active issues management; crisis communication planning and training; and crisis handling

We focus maximum attention on the pre-crisis phase; preventing or planning for crises, rather than waiting and simply reacting to unexpected events. We would much rather focus our attention on building strong enduring relationships, pro-actively managing issues and de-fusing incidents before they become crises than spend our time fire fighting. It’s both the responsible thing to do and the best strategy to protect Anglo American’s brand and enhance its reputation over the long term.

A) Brand, reputation and relationships

In a sector with a mixed reputation, Anglo American endeavours to create goodwill with its stakeholders. Engaging with the people who matter to us – our employees, the communities in which we operate, government, the media and our investors – means that they understand each other better and we can foster genuine relationships based on trust. Crucially, it also means that in the event of an incident, our stakeholders are more likely to give us the benefit of the doubt.

I do not for a moment believe that this provides a “get out of jail free” card, but it does mean that stakeholders are more inclined to take the time to consider the facts and the context, before assuming the worst, affording us the all-important time to address an issue before they rush to make a judgement. And, in a crisis, time is your most precious asset.

B) Risk assessment/management

 Reputation protection is embedded within the fabric of our business through robust policies, systems and processes allowing us to identify and manage risks before they emerge, for example via our integrated planning workshops. This means that potential risks are detected before they escalate rather than having to respond to them when they are already spiralling out of control.

C) Pro-active issues management

Having identified the issues and risks that could affect our business, we go about monitoring and, wherever possible, actively managing them. We use our social intranet technology and our intelligence from our teams on the ground to log and track issues and we remain vigilant for any escalating situations. Every spokesperson needs to be armed and ready with the accurate context and an approved response to any issue, no matter where they are in the world. Our detractors connect and so we must continue to improve the cohesion among the global teams. When we spot emerging issues, we prioritise monitoring and seek to manage the issue proactively to ensure that wherever possible, we prevent an issue turning into a crisis. Our overall objective is to stay within the issues management zone and outside of the crisis response zone to the extent that we possibly can.

D) Crisis planning

Despite all of our best efforts, we cannot completely remove the possibility of a crisis striking the business. It is therefore still necessary to undertake thorough crisis communication planning, and this includes five major steps.

The first is the development and maintenance of a crisis communication plan. In my experience the best plans are comprehensive, but must be useable in the heat of a crisis. As a consequence, our plan is as simple as possible with clear checklists, clarity on roles and responsibilities, template statements and a timeline for implementation of key actions. Our top priority is to make it easy to access and apply under pressure.

The second step is briefing and rehearsal of the plan. I am a great believer in regular briefings, training and rehearsals so that our team is comfortable and confident in rolling out the plan under pressure. We have run crisis communication training sessions at our global conferences, as well as regular desktop exercises and fully interactive crisis simulation exercises for country and business unit teams. These rehearsals embed crisis communication principles and processes within our communication team, but more importantly give the team the opportunity to make decisions and to communicate under pressure. The bottom line is to avoid being in a situation where we are dealing with a major crisis without having completed thorough training and rehearsal beforehand.

The third step is crisis media training. Some may think that in a social media age the importance of the spokesperson is diminished. I could not disagree more. In my experience, social media has increased the importance of the spokesperson, with broadcast interviews captured forever on YouTube and press articles retweeted and always accessible via Google. These factors mean that the spokesperson must be on message, especially in a crisis. That’s why I insist that our executives receive regular media training: you never know when a crisis may break so having your spokesperson trained and ready to go is part of the new business as usual.

The fourth step is social media capability. Social media has been a game changer when it comes to crisis. Despite the fact that we are not a consumer brand, we took the decision three years ago to embrace social media. It forms part of the brand and reputation building activity I described earlier and in particular the development of relationships and the creation of a human face and voice for the business. But it is also an important part of our crisis communication plan. Not only have we integrated social media within our core plan, we have also undertaken realistic social media simulations to rehearse our online response. We know that social media demands a different pace and frequency of response and, crucially, a different tone of voice. It is only through rehearsal that these dynamics can be properly addressed.

The final step is ensuring that our frontline employees are equipped to protect our reputation in a crisis. You can have the best crisis communication plan and team in the world, but if an unassuming security guard is inadvertently quoted as your spokesperson, for example, you have lost control of your message and the fallout can be dire. That’s why we have invested in basic crisis communication training for our security staff, switchboard operators and team assistants. For me, this is a vital piece of the puzzle.


Today, an organisation that views crisis communication as simply what you do after the incident is missing the point and puts their brand and reputation with their myriad of stakeholders at risk. I am a firm believer that effective crisis communication begins with a business as usual approach; that is, that the right culture and the best policies, systems and processes are embedded before the crisis hits. More than that, I view crisis communication as constant work in progress. Every simulation exercise, every issue managed, every crisis handled is an opportunity for personal and organisational development. Learning from experience is a fundamental requirement for crisis resilience and reputation protection.

The Millennium Bug failed to live up to its pre-billing but, in my experience, thorough planning for the Year 2000 crisis paid dividends. It taught me that crisis management is 90 per cent planning and 10 per cent execution – and we are always hoping that we never have to actually do what we’re planning for. But in the event of an anticipated or unexpected crisis, we are ready. Our reputation depends on how well we can manage it.

Anik Michaud

Anik Michaud joined Anglo American in January 2008 as group head of corporate communication and has developed an integrated global communication function that has transformed Anglo American’s corporate narrative, media and employee engagement, digital presence and brand. Anik’s more than 20-year career in the full range of communication and public affairs disciplines has brought her from Quebec, Canada, where she was ultimately director of public affairs for Rio Tinto Alcan after 10 years with the Alcan group. Anik began her career as the political attaché to the Minister of Finance for Quebec.