Crises will happen - it’s how you respond that matters

I always remember the article in a computer magazine that started with the statement: “all computer disks will fail, the only question is when”. It’s amazing how that statement makes you sit up and start worrying about your back-up strategy.

You do have back up? And you do have a strategy? Don’t you?

But, while most businesses have recognised the importance of securing their IT systems, my experience is that many organisations don’t even have the most rudimentary crisis management plan.

Crisis management

Thomas Cook have come in for severe criticism in many quarters over their handling of the recent inquest into the tragic deaths of Christy and Bobby Shepherd from carbon monoxide poisoning. Among those criticising Thomas Cook’s response was IoD Director General Simon Walker, who accused the company of “shameful behaviour”.

His comments came days after the company’s Chief Executive issued an apology to the family of the two children who died in a Corfu hotel in 2006. There was speculation at the time that Thomas Cook had taken their cue from corporate lawyers whose main concern was to avoid saying anything that might imply liability.

Compare this with the much more open way that Alton Towers handled the aftermath of the roller coaster accident there earlier this month.

When disaster strikes, there is a strong urge to put up the shutters and try to hide from the world. But in a world that wants to do business with people who have feelings and emotions, it is a very impersonal response.

I remember learning that lesson very clearly at the time of the Lockerbie Disaster. A friend, who was a BBC news presenter at the time, explained that the only person they had managed to get to speak on behalf of Pan-Am was a corporate lawyer. History records that Pan-Am went from being one of the world’s best-known airlines to bankruptcy a little more than two years following the 1989 disaster.

Institute of Directors Scotland Magazine
A version of this blog appeared in the Institute of Directors Scotland Magazine Summer 2015

Tragically, less than two months later, British Midland Flight 92 crashed onto the embankment of the M1 motorway. The reaction of British Midland could not have been more different. When British Midland Chairman Michael Bishop heard of the accident, he went straight to the accident site and within half an hour of the tragedy he made himself available to the media, speaking with authority and controlled emotion about what had just happened.

An extraordinary thing happened. Far from tumbling in the aftermath, British Midland’s shares went up.

British Midland lives on, with BMI Regional having its registered office here in Aberdeen.

These days we conduct our business in a goldfish bowl. The conventional media have been joined by campaigning websites and social media. All have the potential to make or break reputations. Now, more than ever, having a crisis strategy in place is essential,

The starting point is to brainstorm what sorts of crises you could face. In these days of spoof websites and trial-by-social-media, it could be a well-orchestrated smear campaign, or an adverse comment in news or professional media. It could be negligence, health and safety breaches, or regulatory failure. It could be a pollution incident, food safety, fraud or a financial crisis. It could, of course, be an accident or a fire.

Head in the sand

Or it could be where we started this blog – a data loss, or IT failure.

These are all very different scenarios. But, a well-crafted and rehearsed crisis plan should be able to provide the basis to tackle all the expected crises and be adaptable to the unexpected.

Like many others in the PR industry I have had my share of late-night phone calls resulting in a night spent in the crisis response room. Usually the crisis is resolved long before it becomes a threat to health and welfare, or the company reputation. But, not once has anyone associated said: “Well that was a waste of time”. Not even myself as I headed home wearily to catch up on lost sleep.

A company reputation is far too important to risk by reacting too slowly, putting up the corporate shutters, or presenting a cold, unfeeling legal response.

And a crisis is too fast-moving to try developing your response strategy ‘on the hoof’.

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