Crisis Management Is Evolving, Are Your Plans Keeping Pace?

Author: Peter Shafer

These days, a crisis for your organization usually comes in many shapes and sizes. And being surprised and/or unprepared for a crisis (and a response) can escalate a crisis situation even faster.

With major shifts in both behavior and mindset among various publics over the past five years, your response (or lack of response) to a crisis situation – real or perceived – will often influence people’s perceptions well beyond solving the immediate crisis.

Society is Reshaping Crisis

There are four shifts in our society that are reshaping the definition of crisis and response to crisis:

  1. The lack of trust in almost all institutions. A recent Gallup Poll reports that “trust in institutions” is at its lowest level since Gallup began measuring this attribute. On top of this, poll after poll in 2021 shows the United States divided on party and/or ideological lines, with both sides leaning more towards the extremes and less towards the center.
  2. The continued specter of mental health issues and our shrinking attention span. Harris Poll recently reported that over 40% of adults in the US are currently suffering (self-reported) from stress and mental health issues for which they receive care. These conditions no doubt influence reactions to events that could be deemed a “crisis.”
  3. The ease and access by which someone can create a crisis. There are over 259 billion posts A DAY on social media across the globe, many of them the embers that can start a blaze of crisis.
  4. The constant and negative questioning of “motivations” by the media and others.

In many ways, our society and culture have gamified crises. Crises are now a “spectator sport” with wall-to-wall coverage, winners and losers, offensive and defensive playbooks, “armchair quarterbacks” (experts and pundits), and immediate, measurable outcomes. In many crisis situations today, there is almost a formulaic path followed as they evolve and dissipate. Instead of weeks of news coverage and constant calls for correction and action, many crises start and finish quickly but still can do significant damage.

Corporate Activism

Over the past several months, mainstream news organizations like The Economist and The New York Times have reported on “political CEOs” – corporations becoming more activist and vocal on liberal causes and progressive issues. Many of these leaders claim that the political stances are “good for business.” Still, these shifts create an environment for more crises to emerge – especially among customer segments and loyal buyers.

For example, Major League Baseball decided to move the MLB All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver due to perceived negative implications over controversy aimed at Georgia’s new voting laws. The move has accelerated the league’s negative trends of lower game attendance, and TV viewership for the All-Star Game was the second-lowest in more than 40 years.

Crisis Cycles

This new “crisis cycle” provides communications experts with both the ability to judge the duration of a potential crisis (e.g., this will be over and pass within a few days) as well as judge the outrage of various key audiences (e.g., if this is on Twitter).

Adapting Crisis Management to Change

This new crisis cycle doesn’t calm the nerves of the C-Suite, which often struggles to gauge the potential fallout of a possible crisis accurately. Executives then over-react or under-react based on faulty assumptions and data. These struggles create REAL issues for crisis managers – setting up good controls and metrics to assess the size, scale, and “stickiness” of crisis issues. And, coming to a consensus with so many audiences involved can divert attention away from a crisis and waste valuable time.

Crisis Management Challenges

In our experience with crises, most teams have a good sense of WHAT to respond to. The two significant struggles facing crisis managers today are:

  1. Is this crisis something we can handle internally with current resources, or do we need external counsel and support?
  2. How to manage expectations among C-Suite executives and senior directors, who see every crisis the same and react in the extreme – either a gigantic mess or something to eschew and ignore.

Crisis Preparedness

Define and redefine crisis cycles for management. The best step for all communications managers is to constantly define and redefine the crisis cycles for all members of management. This practice is an integral part of the strategic planning process but gets overlooked by senior management. It’s too situational, and yet, these crises often throw strategic plans entirely off-course. Crisis playbooks require constant review and refreshing in meetings with key leaders.

If events require your team to use one of its crisis playbooks, be sure to allow those designated to handle the crisis to do their job with as little distraction as possible. These situations are unpredictable. It is impossible to control everything. And a crisis is always incremental, even when it is a large crisis. (A plane crash always leads to an investigation, an incremental phase of the original crisis.)

Conduct crisis scenario planning exercises frequently. Conducting exercises, even for just an hour a week, can be a great way to keep the crisis managers on their toes and prepared for situations. Preparedness includes constantly gathering the competitive intelligence teams require to assess the strength of the various rivals involved. Hiring outside firms to assist in this is an excellent investment of time and money.

Consider that various individuals and small “grassroots movements” have successfully used targeted boycotts against various brands and products over the past three decades. Crisis managers working with CPG companies need to study the tactics closely and, more importantly, the values of these groups and how many people groups can mobilize using grassroots tactics. Intelligence gathering includes monitoring websites and apps that may seem non-traditional.

Centralize competitive intelligence. Centralizing competitive intelligence is also a best practice in this current environment. We are flooded with data and struggle to actually “connect the dots” with the data we have. Having a repository of competitive intelligence allows for better planning, speeds up decision-making and response time, and can streamline message development. It can also identify potential crises that open market opportunities in new locations and markets.

From Crisis to Opportunity

If handled well, anticipating and preparing for various crises that could impact a company’s reputation and bottom line provides growth opportunities. Crisis management is a crucial expertise to sharpen and refine regardless of how polarized or partisan our world has become.

Contact Everest Communications