Don’t let a crisis sweep your office from its foundations

A truly terrible event can batter an organisation like a storm. It unfurls like a hurricane, gathering momentum and taking on a life of its own.

A truly terrible event can batter an organisation like a storm. It unfurls like a hurricane, gathering momentum and taking on a life of its own.

This usually occurs because a trigger event reveals a deeper truth about an organisation or collides with larger public or political agendas. Suddenly, all credibility and goodwill is swept away and a howling gale of criticism drowns out your voice.

The first maxim in a crisis is to act fast but don’t panic – a bad situation need not develop into a crisis. A common problem when a crisis hits is to think that you have to deal with all incoming fire, answering questions about what happened, how it happened, and who is to blame. But it is more important to establish your view of what is happening. If you can project that view from the outset, it will give credibility to your response.

There is a growing realisation that companies in a crisis must contend with the opinions of many groups. They can face danger when they fail to fully realise the relevance of an event to the interest of others. There have never been so many stakeholders in a company’s reputation.

One central thought from our many experiences with corporate crises – from tragic plane crashes to oil spills, corporate fraud to financial meltdowns, supply chain disruptions to major product recalls – is that in today’s world too many organisations put their faith in “crisis management”. The word management implies control, but trying to manage a crisis can often compound a problem in a fundamentally uncontrollable environment.

It is more important than ever for a company to show leadership at a time of crisis. We believe that while you may not be able to manage a crisis, effective leadership is defined by the ability to quickly and clearly grasp the issues and take appropriate action. Management then needs to engage and communicate in an authentic and credible way. The starting point is to recognise just how much the world has changed.

Protecting your reputation requires fast thinking and responsiveness by the leadership of a company and all its advisers. Marshalling an experienced and practised team, seizing the initiative and being clear about what you want to do are crucial. It is easier to reinforce a view that has been established early than it is to change an alternative view that has been allowed to take hold.

Employees can be valuable brand ambassadors during a period of crisis. You may not be able to control what everybody else says about your company in a crisis, but at least you and all of your employees can decide what you want to say, when you want to say it, and in what format you want to deliver it.

This ability to tell your own story is a major step forward. While many of the traditional forms of corporate content – a press release, a speech – are still useful, but you can now bring the power of digital and social media to bear. Just as everyone’s voice is legitimised by the public information space, so is a company’s.

A significant recent transformation in the way audiences think and behave has been a revolution in the nature of the public conversation. In the past few years we have seen the birth of what has been called the public information space, a mass of real-time, interactive content that has disrupted the old world of communications. We are now in the age of conversation.

In this new landscape, the snap of a single photo, an offhand remark or an ill-advised phrase can create narratives from nowhere that can quickly alter the perception of an organisation. The information space across the Middle East and North Africa alone is prolific, influential and vast, with about 10 million tweets every day and the second-highest consumption of YouTube videos worldwide.

The world has changed, and any corporate or social development can become truly global events in a matter of minutes. To continue with the hurricane metaphor, we believe that while you can never hope to manage the storm when it comes, you can project an authentic voice of leadership to help steer your course.

Sir Alan Parker is the chairman of Brunswick Group

Follow us on Twitter @Ind_Insights

Published: May 3, 2014 04:00 AM

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