Opinion March 2012

Taking Care of Crises

The calm before the storm is the time to act

“Crisis” is a word firms hate and consultants love. A crisis to a firm’s board usually means share price freefall and heads rolling. To a consultant, it’s more likely to signal exciting work and big fees from clients who aren’t in a position to argue.

Why is this? From my perspective in crisis communications, it’s clear that most firms spend their crisis money at the wrong time. They mainly spend it when something bad has happened—at which point they spend a lot of money, in a hurry.

They should be spending their crisis-management budget slowly, when nothing bad is happening—which is nearly always. Here are some examples of what can happen with each of these approaches.

Case studies

Six months before the 11 March 2011 earthquake, our firm fielded calls from two clients on consecutive days. Each had a crisis and needed communications help, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Client No 1 was in chaos. We were patched into a conference call that was already underway, with business leaders from four divisions in three countries speaking two languages. No one had been briefed, no one was in charge, and most of us had never spoken before. It soon became clear that no one even knew exactly who was on the call—or why.

A crystallising moment came after 10 minutes of largely incoherent crosstalk, when an unidentified voice suddenly yelled, “Who are you? Where are you calling from? This is strictly confidential!”

The following day we received a call from client No 2, in a state of great … “unexcitement”. Their situation probably carried more business and reputation risk than that of our client the previous day, but the conversation could not have been more different. “We need to dust off our crisis response plan”, said the chief executive. “I’ll lead a call in 10 minutes with the agreed team”.

It’s obvious that client No 2 was operating from a completely different crisis response platform. Without spending a great amount of resources in terms of either time or cash, this firm had done the work when nothing bad was happening. They had formed teams and communication trees, identified advisors, mapped out scenarios, and done all the other basics. So when something bad happened, the chief executive could focus on strategy instead of finding phone numbers.

In reality, preaching about preparation in BCCJ ACUMEN is much easier than trying to get excited about crisis management when there’s nothing going on. When all is calm, taking the first step—doing a first sensible thing—tends to drift to the bottom of the list. For me, the earthquake brought this home.

The photograph on this page is of a workstation at our office on 11 March. A bookshelf falling on a chair is nothing compared to the destruction up north, but the point is it fell over because I had all the time in the world to screw it to the wall—and never did. And yet 24 hours after the furniture came crashing down on my colleague—who thankfully was safe under her desk—I had everything secured. Obviously, I needed a little … nudge.

We all need this nudge. There’s an almost 100% chance that right now your firm is not in crisis. There has not been an accounting fraud. There has not been a massive earthquake. You are not being sued for discrimination, and you have not been ordered by head office to sack half your staff in Japan. In other words, it’s the perfect time to prepare.

What should you do? What is the “first sensible thing” I mentioned earlier? With 11 March now one year behind us, our firm is currently busy tailoring disaster response manuals for the countless chief executives in Japan who still don’t have anything in the drawer to guide their immediate actions when the next earthquake or other natural disaster strikes.

But your first thing could be as simple as writing a list of all the bad things that could happen, and considering whether you and your firm would be ready to act. From there, you can devise a plan.

Of course, if having all the time in the world still isn’t quite long enough to get a plan together, please give me a call as soon as something bad happens. Because consultants love a good crisis.