Brands & Branding: Preventing an issue Becoming a Crisis- Claude
When working in crisis communications, it’s very important to differentiate between a crisis and an issue. You participate in a crisis but you manage an issue. This is an important distinction that will allow you to concentrate your knowledge and experience quickly and effectively.
Before I go into more detail, it is important that we put the current risk and reputation environment in context.
In the age of ubiquitous social media and the emergence of ‘fake news’, the reputation and crisis management environment has become increasingly difficult to manage. According to the Reputation Institute, 2018 was the first year of significant reputation decline since the Great Depression. Indeed, the same report indicates that there has been a 38.5% decline in trust of corporates and corporate leadership. This is coupled with a 7.9% decline in purchase intent (customer spending).
Let’s look more closely at the difference between an issue and a crisis and why it is good practice to do this.
Issue vs crisis
An issue, on the one hand, is an event or activity that, in most cases, simply requires a response to a question from a third party, usually the media. It requires a willingness to respond to the enquiry and should be planned as part of general communications support for a particular project or programme, for example as part of your FAQs.
A crisis, on the other hand, develops when there is a sustained ‘attack’ on an organisation or entity despite all efforts to provide context and content. A crisis typically develops over a 3–5-day period of continuous coverage in traditional media but, as indicated earlier, this is rapidly becoming an area where social media can take the lead and significantly enable the narrative to run out of control.
Another factor in escalating an issue to a crisis is the inability (and sometimes the unwillingness) to communicate a response. This may be due to a number of factors, including a lack of information, lack of accountability and various other factors often not related to the crisis itself.
Procedures and processes
For both issue-handling and crisis-management, there is a series of procedures and processes that allows us to manage each incident efficiently and effectively. This means gauging the level of response required, if any.
In South Africa, issues usually revolve around three things: The way a business operates, The long-term commitment to SA, and Matters of reputation and perception.
So, for matters involving the way the business operates, one should be prepared to answer questions around business sustainability, BBBEE and business transformation or the environmental impact of your business
When it comes to sentiment, often expressed on social media, one should be able to demonstrate a commitment to SA through measurable impact on communities or on consumer uptake. A company should also have a clear roadmap for future investments, as well as the transformation of management and the workforce in general. Environmental impact and issues around sustainability are in the spotlight these days and all organisations must have a clear environmental policy in place, backed by facts and figures, not hot air.
Sentiment around an organisation’s commitment to the county and, in particular, to future growth and investment is also something an organisation must be able to illustrate, whether it be a clear growth and investment path, the leadership profile of the audience, community and corporate social responsibility and environmental impact. You should have a clear response to any questions raised around these issues. Social media is a useful channel for communicating facts and information around these issues
When dealing with the issue of perception and reputation, any organisation needs to be aware of the importance of sustainability, investment value, relationships with government and support of the NDP (National Development Plan), together with performance and leadership. Traditional media, be it print or radio, is excellent media for communications around these issues.
Preparation on all of the issues above will be crucial in preventing any issue escalating into a full-blown crisis. Crises are stressful, damaging, time-consuming and may prove terminal, if not handled correctly.
I cannot overemphasise the importance of having a structured operational programme. Bear in mind that, in some situations, a crisis is the result of an operational failure and cannot be resolved through communication but rather through structural reform. In this case, communication will be used to explain the reforms as a means to resolve the crisis. Your crisis-communication model is divided into three phases: 1. Prepare, 2. Respond and 3. Recover. Let’s look at each phase in a little more detail.
Phase 1: Prepare
The essence of this phase is to prevent a crisis from spiralling out of control. I cannot overemphasise the importance of preparation. As the saying goes, “Train hard, fight easy.”
You should have a crisis team set up and trained in various scenarios but also equipped, through audits and analysis, to think on its feet. Testing of scenarios and running simulations play a big role here. Investment in this early phase will mitigate costs at the end. A draft crisis-strategy and -messaging, based on various scenarios, must be in place and all media channels clear and understood, both primary and secondary.
Phase 2: Respond
This is the damage-limitation phase. Here the strategy is one of refinement and evolution: the refinement of the messaging based on feedback and evolution of message delivery based on circumstances. There must be a proper documentation of all actions taken and messages sent. This will assist in the post-mortem of the communications effort as a whole.
Phase 3: Recover
This is the rebuilding and learning phase. It is amazing how little emphasis is often placed on ‘lessons learnt’. This phase includes analysis of: the crisis itself, the operational phase, the communications component and post-crisis audits involving stakeholders and the business itself. It is important that any gaps in any process are closed and that ongoing monitoring of this process takes place.
That, in a nutshell, is my approach to crisis communication. Note that dealing with issues will avoid a crisis, and planning and preparation, or lack thereof, will play a massive role in determining the outcome of any given crisis.
Kajsa Claude (@KajsaClaude) is head of client services at Ogilvy Public Relations and Influence in Johannesburg. She has over 20 years of experience working in strategic internal and external corporate communications, mainly in Europe but the last 10 years in South, as well as southern, Africa. She has worked on designing and implementing several strategic media campaigns in both the commercial and non-profit sector and she has managed teams across both national and company borders.