The birth of the internet improved much about life in the average communications department. ‘Gum tongue’, an affliction caused by licking too many press release envelopes sealed, became a thing of the past. Out too went the hours crouched over a fax machine as it tried to connect with engaged others at newsrooms around the country before chewing the pages and refusing to spit them out.
But the internet hasn’t been all upside. You have to be a very fast runner to catch and correct misleading stories and faulty facts when they’ve reached the information superhighway. This is never more frustrating than when you’ve been woken up at some ungodly hour to be told that something’s gone horribly, and publicly, wrong. It’s crisis management time.
The internet was invented by geeks using ‘rules’ and those rules are enshrined in internet law. Less well known among these laws is Sod’s web law. This forbids any corporate crises from starting during normal office hours, or at any time when the comms department is fully staffed and enjoying a moderate workload. A sub-clause dictates that at least one ill-informed, insomniac blogger or ‘citizen reporter’ with a facebook or twitter account will be available to release their views before you’re even aware of the problem.
By the time you’ve had a coffee and made the first calls to begin to understand the issue, the story that’s about to spoil your chief exec’s breakfast has circumnavigated the globe a few times. By then, your inbox is filling up with emails from colleagues pointing you to internet links ‘to make you aware!’, when what you really need at this point is a warm croissant.
Fortunately, reputation-threatening corporate crises are relatively rare occurrences and most communications departments have documented crisis management plans in place. Unfortunately, these plans were usually produced in the immediate aftermath of the last crisis, the one that nearly cost the top boss his job. Today’s crisis will have moved to DEFCON 3 by the time you’ve dug it out and begun re-familiarising yourself.
That’s when the memories come flooding back of the leaving drinks for the lawyer who always answered her phone out of hours. She’s the same lawyer the manual suggests approaching for legal approval for any public statements in an emergency.
Crisis management has always been as much an art as a science. Corporate crises are, by their very nature, volatile. They are unfamiliar with predictable paths. Ask any those who managed the fallout from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill at BP last summer, the recent Blackberry network outage or the unfolding economic crisis in the eurozone.
Is it really possible to build a plan that addresses an unknown and non-defined problem? I don’t think so either. It’s tough developing a plan that prepares for an non-defined, future event based on nothing except past events.
You can have a process designed to deal with a crisis, but ultimately, you need capable people to manage them. These are the people that know who to call, know how things work and have the inner calmness to keep their heads when others are losing their jobs. As a rule, they’re the department’s best practitioners.
Like most other support functions, the global economy has led to a reduction in headcount in communications departments. These declining resourcing levels adds to the already long list of reasons why updating the crisis response manual gets deferred. Since the likelihood of a crisis impacting any business is inversely proportionate to that business’ level of preparedness to deal with one, this means short-staffed teams are less likely to manage a crisis successfully if the Gods decide it’s their turn. It’s an area of rising vulnerability.
There is, of course, an industry that exists that’s staffed by consultants that can help companies prepare for and manage a corporate crisis. But there’s little they can do if you call them after the dam has burst. Even with advance warning, the real work needs to be managed and carried out by the in-house who know their way around.
The speed with which information flows around the internet means without a reasonable level of preparation, well developed wits and a slice of luck, your chances of coming out on top are declining, year on year.