Planning for a rainy day

By Richard Gordon

In many respects, issues management today in the 24/7 digital news world is no different than it ever was.

It comes down to 10 simple words: Gather the facts, tell the truth, do the right thing.

What has changed markedly is the time you have to gather the facts and tell the truth. The ‘Golden Hour’ one could rely on to gather the facts, decide the position and respond to a situation has shrivelled to mere seconds.

The 24/7 news cycle is unforgiving. Reporters who work online and their readers do not respect 9-5 working days. In fact, analysis shows that Facebook is most active between 5pm and 8pm.  In the 24/7 news and social media world, stakeholders follow breaking stories and expect instant access to information or responses from organisations under fire.

The timing and authenticity of a public statement are critical and may be the most important aspect of issues management communications. This is particularly critical given today’s connected world, where information is rapidly transmitted in an uncontrollable manner.

Which is why an Issues Management Plan covering many risks and scenarios is more necessary than ever before.

An issues management plan includes known potential issues, pre-prepared positions on the issues, and media holding statements should the issue break into the public space with little warning. It also sets out how an issue should be assessed, who decides how to respond and how to ensure the right communication reaches the right people.

If there are potential issues that realistically could see the light of day or, in a common scenario, an organisation knows an issue is going to break because of a business decision, it would be useful for senior leaders to think about responses, solutions and worst-case scenarios. 

There are at least three immediate benefits to this exercise:

  • You may realise that some of the situations are preventable by modifying existing methods of operation.
  • You can begin to think about possible responses, about best-case/worst-case scenarios, all of which is better than when under the pressure of an actual crisis.
  • In some cases, a well-managed issue can enhance brand reputation.

Activating the crisis teams

Best-practice issues management breaks the responsibility into two teams – one to work on the problem and one to communicate to stakeholders.

The first team is generally known as the Crisis Management Team (CMT) and might consist of the entire leadership team or be tailored for each specific event so that senior leaders not directly involved can continue their normal activities.

The role of the CMT is to manage the problem from a high level, make important decisions about business continuity and deal with issues – e.g. legal or political – as they arise. The CMT will probably also be responsible for direct communications with directors and shareholders.

One member of the CMT should liaise with the Crisis Communications Team (CCT). This team is charged with ensuring approved and timely communications reach various stakeholder groups and through a variety of channels. Each member of the CCT should be responsible for a stakeholder group or groups.

One of the biggest issues when an issue breaks without warning is the simple issue of internal communication and notification. Issues rarely break when managers are at their desks. Sometimes it can take hours for news of the issue to reach the right people within the organisation. Often, key people will hear of an issue affecting their organisation from a customer or the media first.

A well-organised organisation with an Issues Management Plan will have a system for contacting everyone on the CMT and the CCT. The Plan should also have a comprehensive list of stakeholders and their contact details, which will need to be updated regularly.

Best practice is to use multiple means to contact key people when a serious issue breaks. If you use more than one channel, chances are much greater that the messages will get through.

Stakeholders react more positively to authenticity, honesty and transparency. It is far better to acknowledge a mistake, fix the issue and provide context or understanding. Denial, obfuscation (spin) and insincere apologies will quickly come undone.

Doing the right thing

More and more lawyers today understand that a company in crisis can lose a case in the Court of Public Opinion long before a legal process plays out.

Companies should be focused on ‘doing the right thing’ in a crisis for a stakeholder. Lawyers have historically counselled against giving away too much in case it is seen as an admission of guilt. But it is possible to do the right thing without prejudicing a subsequent legal case regarding responsibility.

A good example of doing the right thing was the Total Oil tank explosion in Hertfordshire in 2005. The blast blew out windows in a wide area around the facility. Around 2,000 people were evacuated and many businesses were impacted by the ensuing fire. While the fire was still raging, Total Oil set up a help line for evacuees, found alternative accommodation and hired a fleet of glaziers to replace house windows. It did this five years before it finally accepted liability for the explosion and paid out hundreds of millions of pounds in damages and fines. 

Similarly, legal advice may be to say nothing to media. However, a “no comment” to the media today translates as “we’re hiding something or we’re guilty” to the public. It is always best to offer something to the media without compromising a legal position.

Finally, have an ‘off’ button. Any process that is activated should also be able to be deactivated. It’s a good idea to have an internal version of the ‘all clear siren’ so that everyone can stand down and get back to normality.

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