To be in the right and to be seen as right both require intent and action
Much like life itself, crises are inevitable. They come calling on you, no matter who you are. The only thing that is in your control is your preparedness when a crisis hits you, so you are able to weather it.
Whether personal or professional, crises are primarily unforeseen events that pose operational, financial, and reputational threat to an individual or organisation. Crises can physically, emotionally, and financially hurt stakeholders - be they customers, employees, shareholders, investors, suppliers, and community members. That's why, how we act in a crisis and how we manage a crisis is so important.
Take the recent case of e-commerce major Flipkart. The company, of late, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons - from top-management exits, funding issues, devaluation to postponing the joining of campus hires from June to December this year. The hitherto ‘startup darling’ has drawn considerable flak from campuses as well as the industry for this decision.
Flipkart is not alone. Other startups such as Zomato, Snapdeal, Housing.com, Ola, and Spoonjoy, too are wedged in crisis as they allegedly face a funding crunch, and layoff backlash.
In such a scenario, it becomes imperative for companies, both new age and old to be able to manage a crisis. It is important to have an effective PR strategy in place so that when a crisis occurs, a competent team is ready to step on the gas. Of course this requires that a well-oiled PR machinery, either in-house or outsourced, be in place. Good public relations (PR) is a continuous process and bringing in PR late or seeing PR as fait accompli can be detrimental to crisis management.
The 4 Ps to a crisis management plan
Prudence to suss out existing and potential threats that your business could be facing. Recognising an emerging threat is the foremost step in avoiding crisis and the crisis management plan hinges on it. Scan your environment. A good understanding of the internal and external business context is essential as it helps in predicting the best, typical, and worst-case scenarios. (Quick tip: Try a Google search to collect data about the typical crises your peers or industry have faced before, to draw out a list of threats). The data and assumption pertaining to the business will help forecast the risks, outcomes and probabilities, a tad bit like the weather forecasting system warning of crisis beforehand to weather them. In effect, with this sort of foresight an e-commerce firm will plan for a server backup lest its main server crashes on a big sale day. Prudent planning enables quick and effective action when required.
Prevention of such situation by taking a proactive approach. Ideally, organisations should examine each and every function to find any breaches that could hazard lives, lead to business disruption or loss of reputation, so that the gaps can be plugged in time. The next important step is to check and update all the necessary procedural, safety and legal requirements. Equally important is a review of the crisis management plan and all existing documents related to crisis preparedness and response, such as crisis communications plans, disaster policies, crisis training manuals etc. It may be tough for a resource-crunched startup to accord priority to preventive measures but not doing so can cost dearly. Remember though that although many companies may have many manuals on risk compliance, but crisis occurs usually despite these best efforts. How public perception is managed then, when all hell breaks loose, is nothing less than critical.
Provision for a concrete crisis communication plan - a series of steps that would need to be undertaken for quick addressal and resolution. Assess the situation along with functional, technical as well as legal experts. Set up a core crisis team and identify a spokesperson, preferably someone from the leadership or with required skillset. It may be prudent to have the spokesperson undergo special training to be able to withstand the questioning under trying times. You may decide to not field calls or individual questions but rather issue only written communication to ensure that nothing is quoted out of context. However, avoid templated communication. Be responsive; in today’s social times, a day gone is like weeks gone. Communicate truthfully even if the reality is unsettling. Honesty is essential to credibility.
Prospect for ways to turn the adversity into an opportunity. Gauge the public mood. Keep a close eye on comments, tweets, and posts even after the crisis. Within these conversations, you could find the answer to what is being expected from the organisation. Crises provide opportunities for organisational learning. But these lessons can be leveraged only if the company has laid down systems to capture them. A post-crisis review should be conducted to ascertain what worked and what did not, and if the company needs changes in its workings. Manage perceptions with utmost care. It is one thing to be 'in' the right and another to be 'seen' as right. Let your stakeholders consistently know that their best interests are always in company’s mind. Seize the post-crisis period as a second chance to strengthen relationships with all.
Above all, a crisis needs to be taken charge of with candor and care.