What’s a Crisis, Then?
Here’s a definition, that’s as good as any for our purposes – crisis (n.) an unstable period, esp one of extreme trouble or danger in politics, economics, etc. As far as business is concerned, the effects of a good crisis on a business can include (but are not limited to) collapse of share price, destruction of reputation, loss of stakeholder confidence, legal action, job losses and possible custodial sentences for ‘responsible’ executives. Scary shit, as I’m sure you’d agree.
In answer to the inevitable question (et tu, dear blog snorkeller?) ‘who the living hell is this guy and what gives him the right to get all preachy on my arse?’, I’ll give you a few examples of crises that I, personally, have dealt with. It’s not a comprehensive list, and it doesn’t contain an example of every type of crisis, but it’s a nice lead in to what comes next.
- The recall of a batch of product (food and drink category) that was shipped to retail outlets before the contamination was discovered
- The employee who drank himself to death at a company ‘fun day’
- The employee who fried himself in an electricity sub-station
- The employee who stood where he shouldn’t and fell fifteen feet on to the concrete floor below
- An unexpected and vitriolic local resident and media reaction to a casino planning application
- The frightening tabloid media homophobic reaction to an (inadvertent) gay advertisement
- The understandable tabloid media reaction to an iconoclastic (anti-religious?) advertisement
- The media furore over a glamour model stabbing her boyfriend (to death) in a restaurant
- The House of Commons early-day motion against the re-naming of a pub in Newcastle
- The banning of the St George’s cross in a chain of British pubs during the Euro 2004 football tournament
- The 12-month pay-freeze imposed on a company because the chairman misheard a journalist’s question
- The failure of a £2.8bn bid for one company by another company
The point, which I hope has been suitably made, is that crises come at you from any angle. You will never be able to anticipate everything, no matter how hard you try, but some simple thought processes can help you prepare.
Often, real crises start from small niggly issues. As a corporate communications professional, it’s your job to be aware of the small niggly issues and, if you cannot see any immediately, then go out and find some. Every company – or client – has small niggly issues. You will not win any friends this way – trust me – and you will be seen as, variously, negative, cynical, and ‘not a team player’. The trick is to maintain your joie de vivre and your place at the heart of corporate culture while still being on the lookout for the small niggly issues.
A great example is Starbucks. Up until earlier this year (2009) Starbucks stores had a tap running into their sinks 24/7. It was to wash glasses and cups. It was to save time.
It was wasting water – at a time when the Green lobby was at its height. When questioned on it, however, Starbucks had no real answer – which translated into acres of negative media coverage. Simply put, no-one had looked out for the niggly issues, no-one was viewing the business from a slightly negative, ‘what-if’ perspective and – even if they were – no-one had the power or influence to tell the ops guys to turn the taps off. And they got busted.
No matter what your business is, it has potential to go wrong. And even if you think it doesn’t, then do not discount the influence of external factors and their ability to make your business go wrong – economic factors, medical factors, geographical factors, human/employee factors (think recession, pandemic, earthquake, terrorism) – anything that can affect your business probably will, sooner or later.
Here I’m going to name-check social media – this is a new danger. Social media allows for the proliferation of rumour, scuttlebutt and (ooooooh) employee dissatisfaction almost instantaneously and totally globally. Obviously, bigger and more established companies and brands are more at risk – because they’re more visible – but all companies, organisations and newsworthy individuals should have some form of monitoring process in place.
In summary, here’s the key points:
- A crisis can come from anywhere
- Look at your business – where could a crisis come from
- Don’t stint yourself – it’s your job to be paranoid
- You are the guardian of corporate reputation, and that’s what’s at stake
- Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer – questioning practice is also avoidance of issues
- Bring people on board – heads of department, key players – instil paranoia in them too
- Monitor all channels for the beginnings of issues
- Make a list of all the things that could happen – no matter how outrageous
- Prepare yourself mentally for what might happen if things go wrong
Next time, we’ll talk about being prepared for the worst to happen.