Despite their best efforts to prevent and control crises, every organisation will unfortunately and inevitably experience at least one at some point.
The increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the supply chains that feed our industries inevitably lead to more complex issues that come to light more quickly and in higher definition than in the past (due in part to the rigour and reach of systems of control, monitoring and reporting that companies and NGOs have created).
Add to this mix the democratic effect of social and digital media, which grants each connected citizen unprecedented reach and amplification of their voice, and the conditions are set for crises to become larger. What in the past may have contained within a specialised or localised audience, today can very quickly transcend borders, bringing new challenges and needs to those tasked to help companies handle their crises and issues.
"What in the past may have contained within a specialised or localised audience, today can very quickly transcend borders."
Aside from the obvious increase in velocity that social networks bring to the spread of crises in our digital age, there is also an increase in frequency, driven both by the transparency of genuine issues that can be uncovered, researched and proven with digital tools, and the murky continuum of mistakes, misquotes and misappropriations – intentional or otherwise – that sometimes gets lumped together under the slippery term of ‘fake news’.
To be sure, ever since the printing press was invented, the ability to create and share incorrect news, or even propaganda has existed. But in the age of Twitter, today’s crisis communications practitioner likely spends as much time busting the myths and setting the record straight, as they do monitoring and managing genuine issues.
Despite the acceleration and volume that digital and social media has brought to crisis management, the fundamentals remain unchanged: robust processes, clear roles and responsibilities, the right spirit, and good preparation are all as relevant in the digital environment as they were in the analogue world.
- Robust processes: the heart of a well-functioning crisis communications plan is a robust process that works across functions and business units and allows for crisis managers to efficiently handle a range of issues and situations at various levels of the organisation. With increasingly integrated supply and distribution chains, and more matrixed organisations, the need for a process that can work at local market, regional and global level and be fully understood across the organisation is a given.
- Clear roles and responsibilities: a well-defined list of accountabilities and responsibilities is essential to the smooth running of the crisis communications process, as is clear allocation of those tasks to individuals who are able to dedicate themselves during a time of crisis to executing them. Ultimately, any plan is only as good as the people executing it so ensuring that the plan is not only in place but that there is ownership of the various steps is essential. Finally, in addition to the responsibilities for running the process, there needs to be a clearly understood and well-communicated matrix of decision-making – who is ultimately in a position to make a decision and who has the final say in important steps in the process. Pre-definition of these responsibilities is critical.
- The right tone: an element of crisis management that cannot be forgotten is the value of setting the right spirit and tone for those working together in a crisis situation, and for the manner in which they communicate. Of course, process and accountability are the essentials, but beyond this there needs to be a clear spirit of trust, mutual respect and support, as well as inherent collaboration to get to the right results. Crises are stressful enough, and therefore ensuring that the crisis management team are able to count on one another’s full support and rely on the other team members to act in alignment with the company’s values and principles is essential. This spirit should flow into their communication style – calm, where necessary apologetic, full of understanding, never defensive and always as transparent as possible. The old adage that the medium is the message applies here too: the visibility of senior leaders and their willingness to act as spokespeople in these times of crisis is absolutely essential to showing how seriously the company takes it. Crises are not a time for leaders to be absent from the stage.
- Preparation: the crisis communications plan can’t be created and then left in the drawer – it needs to live and breathe in the organisation and be well embedded in the broader team’s ways of working. Regular training and refreshers should be provided, not only to the crisis communications team but also to the owners of critical facilities and processes within the organisation. Increasingly, it makes sense to run training in a virtual environment since this reflects the reality of how crises and issues are handled today. Ensuring that the process runs just as smoothly with all those involved on a Skype call rather than sitting together in a situation room, is a useful preparation for a real event. That said, our digital world shouldn’t blind us to the need for an analogue plan B: these days everything lives in a folder on our laptops or a note in our smartphones, but during a power or network outage, having access to the crisis communications plan, phone tree, and conference call numbers in a hard copy format is essential.
A more genuine form of engagement
While many aspects of crisis communications remain unchanged, some have undoubtedly evolved. Digital transformation of our businesses and stakeholder environment offers us the possibility to invest in engagement and building relationships before, during and after crises in ways that were not present before. New ways of communicating and connecting give us the opportunity to build trust and gain benefit of the doubt in the eyes of stakeholders at scale, and create multiple outlets for us to share our side of the story in a transparent, rich and compelling way, as well as to have others share our story on our behalves.
Engagement then, is an even more critical instrument in the toolkit of crisis communications and a key element in protecting and managing reputation.
In the past, communications consultants would target clients’ C-suites with the argument that, by communicating and connecting proactively before a crisis even occurs, companies can help to build a reputational cushion that may mitigate some of the damaging effects of a crisis.
Some even described this as serving like an insurance policy, with the premium invested through communication “paying out’ during a time of crisis and thus helping make a company’s reputation more resilient.
In today’s world of sophisticated stakeholder audiences and greater transparency through digital media, such a mindset risks sounding somewhat one-sided: what is also needed is genuine dialogue with stakeholders and alignment between the corporate goals and messages and the action that companies take.
"What is needed is genuine dialogue with stakeholders and alignment between the corporate goals and messages and the action that companies take."
What form this increased and more genuine form of engagement takes differs depending on the audiences we aim for and the kinds of risks we face as a business. A company that operates manufacturing facilities might implement a local stakeholder engagement plan, inviting government officials, employees’ families and friends, and local neighbours into a particular plant to help them see what goes on inside and to reassure about the safety and security of the operations there.
Today, we must do the same but at scale, reinforcing the face-to-face and online engagement through our digital channels to our virtual neighbours and community members, helping them to see the effort and investment we make in safety, security and reducing the environmental impact of our operations, for instance. And offering them the opportunity to get back in touch with us through our corporate social media channels, of course.
From supply-chain management to employee advocacy
Even more complex is the social and environmental sustainability space where many companies have made tremendous progress in the past decade, working in collaboration and close consultation with other stakeholders to identify and take ownership of aspects of their supply chain that we were previously the source of crises. In the case of Mondelēz International, active engagement with suppliers, farmers, NGOs and civil society around cocoa growing has led to the creation and implementation of a 400 million USD programme to develop a sustainable future supply of cocoa, which in order to be achieved will tackle many of the issues our industry faces like the environmental impact of farming, water usage or the continued prevalence of child labour.
This kind of close collaboration and engagement can lead to improved outcomes and also result in partnerships with organisations that are willing to advocate on behalf of you. The value of this form of advocacy, also in times of crisis, should be clear, since it can only result from a long-term investment of genuine commitment and energy to a shared cause.
"Close collaboration and engagement can result in partnerships with organisations that are willing to advocate on behalf of you."
Finally, another form of engagement will come to play an increasing role in mitigating issues and crises in the years to come: employee advocacy, already a strong and recognized force in the space of employer branding, recruitment and internal engagement, can help to pay dividends too externally.
By living the values of an organisation, knowing at first hand the alignment between talk and action, and sharing a sense of pride in what the organisation is doing and creating, employees are in a unique position not only to advocate for a company at a time of crisis but also through their engagement to help it recover faster and more effectively from challenges. Social platforms that facilitate this engagement internally and advocacy externally must surely also be part of the suite of channels that communicators look to when seeking to find the opportunity in crisis.