Jessica Frost

Following in Franklin's footsteps: the four most critical gaps in crisis preparedness

As reputation specialists, we are inundated with examples of organisations who haven’t put their best foot forward in a crisis.

Our collective experience, borne of years of undertaking crisis health-check assessments for clients, is that reputational credit is not just lost when the chips are down. Organisations often destroy their ability to protect business value before a crisis materialises. They routinely fail to follow Benjamin Franklin’s maxim that ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’

Lack of formal crisis plans and processes

Many organisations still lack formal crisis management plans, or over-focus on the kind of crises that evolve from business continuity incidents, such as a fire in a building or a network outage.

This is problematic for four reasons. First, it means an organisation has no map to navigate out of a fast-moving situation. It creates an over-reliance on individual experience, institutional knowledge and informal relationships, which can be undermined if the right people aren’t in the building at the right time.

Second, it creates an inconsistency and inefficiency of response. If crisis teams are starting from scratch every time, they are losing time that could be better spent addressing the situation itself.

Third, it can increase the friction between teams. If roles and responsibilities have not been codified; if sign-off procedures are not agreed, and team leaders are having to improvise under pressure, activities are likely to be duplicated; accountabilities will be unclear, and stress will be magnified.

Finally, over-reliance on business continuity planning ignores the fact that many crises evolve and escalate from visible, but poorly-contained, issues, like an impending fine from a regulator, which can be more intractable to resolve than incident-based crises, such as a factory explosion. Failing to codify and prepare can leave an organisation dangerously exposed.

Failure to choose and train the right spokespeople

The company spokesperson is a vital crisis role. And yet, some organisations pay dangerously little attention to selecting and training the right spokespeople.

Organisations should assemble a bench of representatives based on the most probable and most acute operational and reputational risks to which they are exposed. Those on the bench should combine subject-matter knowledge, an ability to empathise and a capacity to remain calm under pressure.

A spokesperson bench should also comprise several tiers of seniority, to give an organisation the headroom to ‘protect’ their most senior executives if possible and deploy a more senior spokesperson if the situation deteriorates.

Disproportionate focus on the media

During a crisis, the hammering an organisation receives from the media can be incessant. Traditional and social media is also largely responsible for setting the pace of a crisis. Nevertheless, a communications team can often over-index its importance at the expense of other stakeholders.

We see two common failings. First, a failure to use ‘peace-time’ stakeholder mapping and relationship building in the service of a crisis. Organisations often lose vital time trying to identify which stakeholders they know; who owns the relationship and what kind of relationship they have.

The second failing is a failure communicate via the appropriate channel, using the right vernacular, to the right stakeholder groups. If mismanaged, this can result in what appears to be a ‘tone-deaf’ response from an organisation in crisis.

No post-mortem or post-crisis strategy

It is understandable that once a crisis has passed, teams are eager to move on.

The temptation to skip the post-mortem phase deprives organisations of the chance to re-strengthen their internal structures, processes and capabilities – both from a crisis prevention and a crisis management perspective.

It also denies them the opportunity to rebuild reputational capital after a crisis. If you don’t know what went wrong, why, and what the net impact on reputation has been, you are unlikely to know how to re-build trust afterwards.

A failure to embark on a full post-crisis assessment also means organisations fail to confront the emotional costs of a crisis, and how to rebuild their leadership’s and employees’ self-confidence. This can prolong the impact of a crisis, encouraging a more inward-looking and acting culture.

Gaps in crisis preparedness have destroyed value in many businesses. Those who survive a crisis are not the lucky ones, they are the organisations that live up to the Franklin legacy and come prepared.

Please contact Jess Frost for more details about our crisis management services