1. Tell us a little about your experience in the crisis management sector:
I have been involved in crisis and issues management for longer than I care to remember, but let’s say 20 plus years! The first experience was in a major Australian organization where I was a very junior member of the management team and the Managing Director invited me to be part of the crisis management planning team, and it has built from there. It was fun! Issues and crisis communication planning were staples in my PR and marketing consultancy and we worked with a diverse range of industries and products from carpets and wine to major infrastructure projects and Government Departments. I have also taught issues and crisis management at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels in two leading communication schools in Australian universities, plus industry groups and associations. As a trainer, coach and facilitator I have worked with major agricultural groups, including wheat farmers straight off their tractors! Crisis management planning for the live export trade is also part of my resume. The biggest challenge and probably the most fun was the two-year crisis communication planning and training exercise we did in the lead-up for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. We partnered with emergency services and continuity risk planners to conduct exercises, audits and major education. In North America I have been working with a major transit agency, agri-business bank plus a major law firm. A diverse portfolio!
2. In your new book, Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, you write about the four stages of a crisis and what to expect at each stage. Can you tell us a little bit about how you decided on the four stages?
After many years of working in and around the media and studying the patterns of reporting, it became very evident that there were distinct patterns in how journalists report a crisis. We put our theory to the test in numerous scenarios and desktops exercises with clients and found that the coverage was predictable – even down to the type of questions asked at what stage. Our theory was sound and clients found it very helpful to have the guidelines. Research from both crisis theorists and media academics also support our notion, not only of predicable patterns of reporting but what readers and viewers expect a certain narrative at a certain time.
3. How do you see social media changing the way communicators handle a crisis?
Dramatically! Basically a crisis plan without social media is flawed, incomplete, and negligent. The digital era has changed the landscape to the extent that everything happens at lightning speed.
4. What is the biggest mistake you see brands making when a crisis strikes?
Acting slowly and/or being quick to blame or point the finger. No one likes to be singled out for doing something wrong but it’s far smarter to act quickly, be humble, and demonstrate care and empathy for the “victims” as quickly as possible.
The other thing that I think brands do very poorly in social media is that they calibrate something negative as a crisis, when it is only that – some negative press. There is much to learn about issues management and going off-line when needed for some deeper conversations. Yes, transparency is important, but do we really need all the dirty laundry aired in public? I think not.
5. What advice you would give organizations that aren't prepared for crisis?
Be like Michael McCain, CEO of the Canadian-based, Maple Leaf Foods. His quick and empathic action when his company’s products were linked to the deaths of 12 people was to keep away from accountants and lawyers. He has been famously quoted as saying “Going through the crisis there are two advisers I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants. It’s not about money or legal liability; this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food.”
6. What do you think when you hear someone say, "we don't need a crisis plan because we're never going to have a crisis"?
They are ostriches! Sadly many organizations fail to plan and as the saying goes, they then need to plan to fail. Most crises are the results of smoldering issues – incidents that have been swept under the carpet, hidden. Then a triggering event happens and very swiftly all the skeletons are out of the closet.
It’s better to have a plan than none at all – even if it’s written on the back of an envelope! At least have a list of key people and their critical contact information – basic but necessary. Your six “best friends in a crisis” are the five w’s and how – who, what, where, when, why and how so have a one-pager that answers those key questions, and you will be better prepared than most. Always be thinking what next? Who will “panic” now? Why? What do we need to be doing/saying?
7. What do you see in the future of crisis management?
More and more need for transparency, authenticity and speed. Mobile technology is also key – do whatever you can to be mobile-ready, have virtual command posts, monitor everything and have key listening posts everywhere. The more enlightened organizations will do more to educate and empower their employees, particularly those with a large representation of Millennials in their workforce. This group (born between 1980 and 2000) will insist on having a say and will need to be involved. They also expect to take on leadership roles. To be better prepared for the future, organizations will need to be nimble, flexible, and adaptive. I recommend that they take a leaf from the Coast Guard, whose culture of “Maximum Disclosure, Minimum Delay” means they educate, train and empower their front-line. If it’s your job then you can expect to speak about it.