A make or break opportunity 

Stakeholder mapping is critical to successful crisis management 



From United Airlines to BP, misunderstanding your stakeholder’s perceptions and sensitivities can add oil to the flames.

(Photo by Hans Gustafsson on Unsplash)

Which is why, far from being just a tool to understanding your key audiences, stakeholder mapping is proving critical to successful crisis management. 

Every period of turmoil is frightening. It challenges the status quo and threatens our comfort zone. Turbulent times, uncertain times and crises all call for focus and steadiness. Perhaps the clichéd navigation metaphor can never be too relevant: to ride out the storm, one must hold the course. 

Statistics from the Institute of Crisis Management’s 2017 annual report show that 68 per cent of business crises worldwide are non-event-related, or smouldering, crises, with the main crisis category being mismanagement. 

Often the problem or issue exists long before it goes public, yet little is done to address and resolve it or, worse, it is covered up, before it escalates. A single trigger - a rumour, a leak, a stakeholder action can catapult an organisation into crisis in a very short time, with devastating effects. 

Therefore, with the majority of crises today being slow-burn, much can be done in advance to anticipate, prevent and mitigate issues before they spin out of control. Proactivity in crisis management is the name of the game and being prepared to respond effectively is no longer sufficient. 

Crisis management is a strategic discipline that is embedded in the organisation’s corporate culture, driven from and by the top echelon, and implemented across all levels and across all functions in the organisation. 

Communications teams’ traditional focus on media relations during a crisis is no longer enough. They are now taking on a wider strategic role in the organisation including stakeholder mapping and engagement and scenario planning to help management teams anticipate crises and alleviate their impact. 

Recognising the obvious and the not-so-obvious stakeholders 

Globalisation and the increasing interdependence of our societal systems are generating multiple levels of stakeholders that are a challenge to engage with in normal times but that become a nightmare to manage in a crisis. Besides employees, regulators, politicians, victims, customers and shareholders, organisations now also have to reckon with other stakeholder groups that become involved through social media networks. The multitude and diversity of these intertwined stakeholder groups are compounding the intensity of crises. Overall, we are witnessing more stakeholder outrage at corporate and institutional misbehaviour. 

Internet-based news sources allow individuals worldwide to follow such situations. Social networks, blogs and online news sites can play a big role in the unfolding of crises and scandals in the public and private sectors; the popularity of Twitter and Facebook, for example, has led to the light-speed dissemination of information and misinformation alike. 

“We are witnessing more stakeholder outrage at corporate and institutional misbehaviour.” 

There is no clearer sign that stakeholder mapping must be high on the priority list of any well-trained crisis manager today. To anticipate, prevent and mitigate crises, business leaders and communicators must have a solid grasp of the climate in which they are working as well as the stakeholder scene surrounding any emerging issue. Yet stakeholder mapping is not an improvised task. It requires skills and a process. 

Stakeholder mapping consists of identifying all audience groups with a stake in the crisis and categorising them in at least three groups: allies, neutral and opposition. 

“Stakeholder mapping identifies stakeholder expectations and power and helps in understanding political priorities,” write Gerry Johnson, Kevan Scholes and Richard Whittington, Ph.D., in their book Exploring Corporate Strategy. “There are different ways in which stakeholder mapping can be used to understand stakeholder influence. It underlines the importance of two issues: (1) how interested each stakeholder group is in impressing its expectations on the organisation’s purposes and choice of strategies, and (2) whether stakeholders have the power to do so.” 

“Stakeholder mapping consists of identifying all groups in the crisis and categorising them in at least three groups: allies, neutral and opposition.” 

Recently, a major manufacturer in the automotive sector building its largest plant in India found itself thrown into the maze of a highly complex stakeholder scene with the potential of derailing the entire project as well as other safety and environmental risks. The management team recognised that they needed to build a solid strategy and appointed a team to be trained in stakeholder mapping skills. This team embraced the approach and have been managing the issues proactively ever since with great follow-through and results, including a very effective response and engagement during a couple of incidents that had the potential of quickly escalating to crisis level.

The plant is now built and operational, the most negative and opposing stakeholder groups have now by and large been neutralised. Of course, issues continue to flare up and some stakeholders are more active than others, but with a methodology in place and a team trained to manage the process, the organisation is able to be proactive and prevent deterioration. 

By contrast, the recent United Airlines passenger-dragging situation and its chief executive officer’s initial response highlight complete disregard for stakeholders’ perceptions and sensitivities, clearly escalating a bad situation to global outrage and hitting the company’s reputation and stock value. 

The same can be said about BP’s Tony Hayward during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico crisis. His notorious quote (“I‘m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back”) and his decision to go sailing (“Pictures of Tony Hayward yachting at the Isle of Wight billed as a PR nightmare and insulting to those affected by oil slick”, The Guardian June 20, 2010) turned an already bad crisis into a complete reputation meltdown.

So stakeholder mapping before, during and after crises is possibly the most critical skill corporate and business leaders need if they are to save the day during bad times. 

Preparing for the worst: from stakeholder mapping to scenario planning 

During business-critical times or when facing an escalating issue, management teams can use stakeholder maps to develop scenarios, build strategies, think freely and generate solution-focused approaches. In the typical scenario planning exercise, the management team simply asks “what if?” Some scenarios are optimistic and some are pessimistic. The group then develops strategies and plans to cope with each. 

No crisis manifests itself the same way as another, and no one can predict exactly how long a crisis will last, how it will twist and turn, and how it will end up. What is always almost certain, though, is that the situation will get worse before it gets better. Yet in any crisis, however long it lasts, there are periods of intense activity, with information overload within very short time spans and other periods of virtually no change or development and senseless waiting. 

Considering the time pressures, building different worst-case scenarios in a crisis, is invaluable. Instead of remaining reactive, the team can be pro- active and keep its spirits up during the inevitable downtimes. Under the high-pressure conditions of a crisis, scenario planning helps the team pursue a dominant strategy related to the likely worst-case development. This is not a matter of gazing into a crystal ball to predict the future, but rather a fast and powerful methodology to be ready for the worst. 

“The great virtue of the scenario approach to planning,” write Charles Hill and Gareth Jones in their book Strategic Management Theory: An Integrated Approach, “is that it can push managers to think outside the box, to anticipate what they might have to do in different situations, and to learn that the world is a complex and unpredictable place that places a premium on flexibility, rather than on inflexible plans based on assumptions about the future that may turn out to be incorrect.” 

Time to take stock 

The ability to mitigate the impact of a crisis is a key skill that every business leader should possess. Leaders who are able to communicate effectively with both internal and external stakeholders are generally good at mitigating the impact of crises. With their understanding and experience of stakeholders and grasp of complex issues, communicators are well placed to help management face the challenges and opportunities of change and to steer the course out of crises. 

When an organisation faces a crisis, taking stock of where you stand is a good place to start. It will help you determine your stakeholders’ position and the areas you can influence, and define a strategy based on worst-case scenarios. By taking the lead in this process, you will likely emerge in stronger place than where you started.

Stakeholder mapping steps 

  • Identify all audience groups, no matter how small or remote to the crisis situation, that have a stake in the crisis. 
  • Categorise audiences in at least three groups: allies, neutral and opposition. 
  • Define each audience group’s specific issues regarding the situation, whether a group is likely to take any action, and whether the organization has any influence on this group (and if not, focus instead on the ones that can be influenced). 
  • Define the desired outcome, the strategy for reaching it and the key messages to use. Stakeholder mapping is a continuous process, being reviewed, adjusted and fine-tuned as the situation develops and more stakeholders come onto the scene. 

Caroline Sapriel

Caroline Sapriel is managing partner and founder of global consultancy CS&A International. Previously, she was general manager of Taiwan and regional business development director, Asia, at JMA Public Relations in Hong Kong. She has also been a guest lecturer in crisis management at the University of Antwerp in Belgium and Leiden University in The Netherlands.